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Empathy study indicates safe role for ‘ecstasy’ in treatment role

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The class A drug MDMA may be used “safely” as a treatment in patients for psychological trauma and alcoholism without side effects linked to social distress, according to UK researchers.

The study, by the University of Exeter, found long-term MDMA users have higher levels of empathy than cannabis and other drugs users.

“MDMA users were better able to understand the emotions of others and had better emotional empathy than people using other drugs”

Molly Carlyle

It compared the empathy levels of 25 people who used multiple drugs including MDMA, 19 people who used multiple drugs not including MDMA and 23 people who used alcohol only.

Users of MDMA reported feeling much more empathy – and were better at identifying the emotions of others on a computer task – than people who took multiple drugs not including MDMA.

These other drugs were cannabis, cocaine and ketamine, noted the researchers in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

MDMA is already known to increase empathy for a short period, and the new findings about longer-term effects could have implications for possible clinical uses, said the study authors.

The study’s 67 participants completed a questionnaire about their own empathy and undertook computerised tasks in which they had to identify emotions on the faces of others.

They also reported how strongly they felt emotions based on seeing others in emotional states.

“Importantly, this study suggests that MDMA may be used safely as a treatment without side effects”

Celia Morgan

The study sought to measure both cognitive empathy – the ability to understand the emotions of others – and emotional empathy – experiencing emotions due to the emotions of others.

It found MDMA users reported feeling significantly greater emotional empathy, and computer tasks revealed greater cognitive empathy, compared to people who used other types of drug.

All participants showed declines in mood and self-esteem in response to social exclusion, but there were no differences between the three groups, noted the researchers.

In addition, they found the levels of empathy and social pain in MDMA users were consistent with “normal psychosocial functioning”.

The findings contradict previous suggestions that long-term MDMA use may cause heightened social distress.

Lead author Molly Carlyle said: “We recruited long-term but mild users – a minimum of 10 times – in order to reflect doses that may be used for medical purposes.

“It has been suggested that MDMA, combined with therapy, might be an effective treatment for psychological trauma and alcoholism, but it has previously been suggested that MDMA may cause heightened social distress,” she said.

“Our findings indicate that isn’t the case in our study, MDMA users were better able to understand the emotions of others and had better emotional empathy than people using other drugs, and on a similar level to those who only drink alcohol,” she noted.

Professor Celia Morgan, senior author of the research, said: “Our study suggests that mild MDMA use is not associated with any problems in how we function socially.

“Instead, it seems to make people better at empathy when compared to drug users who don’t use MDMA, with a suggestion of better empathy compared to alcohol users,” said Professor Morgan.

She said: “We can’t say whether differences in empathy are due to taking MDMA, or whether there were already differences in the people who use MDMA and those who don’t before they started taking the drug.

“Importantly, this study suggests that MDMA may be used safely as a treatment without side effects on these crucial social processes,” she added.

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