MDMA enhances “mind reading” of positive emotions and impairs “mind reading” of negative emotions

Abstract

Rationale

3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, ecstasy) increases sociability. The prosocial effects of MDMA may result from the release of the “social hormone” oxytocin and associated alterations in the processing of socioemotional stimuli.

Materials and methods

We investigated the effects of MDMA (125 mg) on the ability to infer the mental states of others from social cues of the eye region in the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. The study included 48 healthy volunteers (24 men, 24 women) and used a double-blind, placebo-controlled, within-subjects design. A choice reaction time test was used to exclude impairments in psychomotor function. We also measured circulating oxytocin and cortisol levels and subjective drug effects.

Results

MDMA differentially affected mind reading depending on the emotional valence of the stimuli. MDMA enhanced the accuracy of mental state decoding for positive stimuli (e.g., friendly), impaired mind reading for negative stimuli (e.g., hostile), and had no effect on mind reading for neutral stimuli (e.g., reflective). MDMA did not affect psychomotor performance, increased circulating oxytocin and cortisol levels, and produced subjective prosocial effects, including feelings of being more open, talkative, and closer to others.

Conclusions

The shift in the ability to correctly read socioemotional information toward stimuli associated with positive emotional valence, together with the prosocial feelings elicited by MDMA, may enhance social approach behavior and sociability when MDMA is used recreationally and facilitate therapeutic relationships in MDMA-assisted psychotherapeutic settings.

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Acknowledgments

We thank R. Brugger, V. Nicola, C. Bläsi, S. Müller, and S. Purschke for their assistance in study management and M. Arends for editorial assistance. This work was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant no. 323230_126231) and University of Basel (grant no. DPH2037).

Conflict of interest

The authors report no biomedical financial interest or potential conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Matthias E. Liechti.

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Hysek, C.M., Domes, G. & Liechti, M.E. MDMA enhances “mind reading” of positive emotions and impairs “mind reading” of negative emotions. Psychopharmacology 222, 293–302 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-012-2645-9

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Keywords

  • Emotion
  • MDMA
  • Oxytocin
  • Cortisol
  • Social cognition
  • Face recognition