, Volume 231, Issue 21, pp 4219–4229 | Cite as

MDMA alters emotional processing and facilitates positive social interaction

  • Margaret C. WardleEmail author
  • Harriet de Wit
Original Investigation



±3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, “ecstasy”) produces “prosocial” effects, such as feelings of empathy and closeness, thought to be important to its abuse and its value in psychotherapy. However, it is not fully understood how MDMA alters basic emotional processes to produce these effects, or whether it produces corresponding changes in actual social behavior. Here, we examined how MDMA affects perceptions of and responses to emotional expressions, and tested its effects on behavior during a social interaction. We also examined whether MDMA’s prosocial effects related to a measure of abuse liability.


Over three sessions, 36 healthy volunteers with previous ecstasy use received MDMA (0.75, 1.5 mg/kg) and placebo under double-blind conditions. We measured (i) mood and cardiovascular effects, (ii) perception of and psychophysiological responses to emotional expressions, (iii) use of positive and negative words in a social interaction, and (iv) perceptions of an interaction partner. We then tested whether these effects predicted desire to take the drug again.


MDMA slowed perception of angry expressions, increased psychophysiological responses to happy expressions, and increased positive word use and perceptions of partner empathy and regard in a social interaction. These effects were not strongly related to desire to take the drug again.


MDMA alters basic emotional processes by slowing identification of negative emotions and increasing responses to positive emotions in others. Further, it positively affects behavior and perceptions during actual social interaction. These effects may contribute to the efficacy of MDMA in psychotherapy, but appear less closely related to its abuse potential.


Ecstasy MDMA Emotion perception Social cognition Social interaction Psychophysiology 



The authors would like to thank Celina Joos, Charles Frye, Lindsey Davis, Aoibhin Curran, and Sarah Ellefson for help with data collection and scoring, and the University of Chicago Investigational Pharmacy service for preparing the drug capsules. This work was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (R01 DA002812) to HdW, and MCW was supported during the execution of this work by a National Institute on Drug Abuse Training Grant (T32 DA007255).

Conflict of interest

Dr. Wardle reports no biomedical financial interests or potential conflicts of interest. Dr. de Wit reports no biomedical financial interests or potential conflicts of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral SciencesUniversity of Texas Health Science Center at HoustonHoustonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral NeuroscienceUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA

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