Study Suggests MDMA Could Help People With PTSD, Autism


Apr 22, 2019


Image courtesy of Maurice Mikkers

Drugs like ketamine or MDMA (the active ingredient in ecstasy) have thus far been regarded as party drugs, and have spent several decades under legal restrictions because of the perception. However, recent studies have shown that these mind-altering substances might actually be useful for doing exactly that —  altering how the brain functions. While ketamine has been shown to provide relief from drug-resistant forms of depression, a study conducted earlier this month with MDMA shows promising results for a wider array of beneficiaries, from patients with mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, to people with conditions characterized by difficulty interpreting social cues, like autism.

The study was led by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who tested mice with a single dose of MDMA, finding that they were able to re-trigger a part of the brain that made positive connections with social interactions. Think of the brain as a soft, pliable thing — as we grow into adulthood, our brains are less moldable and less likely to react differently to situations. While we’re young, there exists what researchers refer to as a ‘critical period,’ where social behaviors are learned. During this window or period, which happens during adolescence, our brains are wired to perceive social interactions as more rewarding — they make us feel good. As we age, this window closes and we might display a diminishing desire for social interaction. As it happens, this is the case for mice, too.

In the study, published in the journal Nature, researchers have not only presented quantitative evidence that this critical period exists for mice, but also that MDMA can reopen that window in an adult mouse brain. Gül Dölen, an assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience and Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University told Newsweek, “This suggests that we’ve reopened a critical period in mice, giving them the ability to learn social reward behaviors at a time when they are less inclined to engage in these behaviors.”

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To prove this, researchers noted the changes driven by oxytocin in the brain structure of young mice. From this, they extrapolated that the hormone oxytocin is involved in setting the critical period during which animals are amenable to social learning, and with a decline in age comes a decline in oxytocin levels and the desire for social bonding. Since MDMA activates the same neurons that are receptive to oxytocin, the researchers tested the effects of the drug on adult mice. A single dose of MDMA restored the critical period, with the effect lasting for four weeks. The study authors believe their findings could have huge implications for treating certain mental health conditions in humans.

The critical period that MDMA reopens could be useful in creating bonds between psychotherapists and patients, which is part of the argument being made for the legalization of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Patients with PTSD and related addictions like alcoholism could benefit from psychotherapy that utilizes the drug in a responsible way that helps them come to terms with their trauma. Additionally, the researchers suggest, people living with conditions like autism could benefit from MDMA-assisted therapies that help them better understand social cues.


Written By Nadia Nooreyezdan

Nadia Nooreyezdan is The Swaddle’s culture editor. Since graduating from Columbia Journalism School, she spends her time thinking about aliens, cyborgs, and social justice sci-fi. She’s also working on a memoir about her family’s journey from Iran to India.


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