Rave drug MDMA makes people more cooperative but not gullible, new research has found.
The main ingredient in ecstasy, MDMA releases chemical messengers in the brain that are linked to behaviour and mood.
And researchers have now discovered we become more cooperative with other people when under the influence of the drug.
But participants did not become any more cooperative towards people that appeared untrustworthy – suggesting the drug does not make people naively trusting towards others.
Twenty healthy adult men were given a typical recreational dose of MDMA or a placebo pill and completed several tasks while in an MRI scanner, including the Prisoner’s Dilemma.
In the Prisoner’s Dilemma players choose to either compete or cooperate with another player.
Both players get points if they cooperate, but if one player chooses to compete they receive all the points while the other player gets nothing.
Participants believed they were playing real people through a computer but they were actually playing a computer which behaved in either a trustworthy or untrustworthy manner.
The team from King’s College London also identified changes to activity in brain regions linked to social processing after taking MDMA.
Taking the drug increased brain activity in areas known to be important in understanding the thoughts, beliefs and intentions of other people.
When processing the behaviour of trustworthy players, MDMA increased activity in the right anterior insula but decreased it when processing behaviour of untrustworthy players.
Problems with social processing are a fundamental difficulty in a range of psychiatric conditions and are not treated effectively by current medications.
The results of the study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, may be relevant for psychiatric conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
MDMA is currently undergoing clinical trials for treating PTSD when used alongside psychotherapy.
Senior author, Professor Mitul Mehta from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, said: “We asked people what they thought of their opponent and, surprisingly, MDMA did not alter how trustworthy they thought the other players were.
“Untrustworthy players were rated as low on the scale, whether on MDMA or placebo, and trustworthy players were given equally high ratings.’
“Importantly, MDMA did not cause participants to cooperate with untrustworthy players any more than normal.
“In other words, MDMA did not make participants naively trusting of others.”
“Understanding the brain activity underlying social behaviour could help identify what goes wrong in psychiatric conditions.
“Given the social nature of psychotherapy, understanding how MDMA affects social interaction sheds light on why the drug could become a valuable tool in treating patients.’
First author, Dr Anthony Gabay added: “When trustworthy players betrayed the participants, the breach in trust had an equally negative impact whether participants were under the influence of MDMA or not.
“However, MDMA led to a quicker recovery of cooperative behaviour and this tendency to rebuild a relationship led to higher overall levels of cooperation with trustworthy partners.”
“Using MRI scans, we were also able to see that MDMA had an impact on brain activity when processing the behaviour of others, rather than altering the decision-making process itself.”
By Ben Gelblum and Adela Whittingham