How Ecstasy Acts on The Brain And Hints at Therapeutic Uses


in BF Scientific Publications,Research


MDMA is by no means a new substance in the drug landscape. Its recreational use sparked in the 1980s and has been sustained until now. However, veiled by a mix of urban legend, unscrupulous reporting and particularly harsh regulation; its mechanisms of action have remained mostly unknown.

One of our goals here at the Beckley Foundation is to break the taboo surrounding these illicit substances, which involves supporting the necessary scientific research to understand how psychoactive substances work in the brain.

It is within this framework that we have contributed to the study whose results have recently been published by Imperial College. This piece of research, a part of the Beckley-Imperial Psychopharmacological Research Programme sheds light on how the human brain functions under the influence of MDMA.

To do so, volunteers rated recollections of positive and negative memories under the influence of this substance while a state-of-the-art brain scan examined patterns of blood flow to different regions of the brain.

The results are fascinating. The substance that is known to many as a ‘party drug’, actually reduces blood flow to certain parts of the brain in a way that seems to lead people under its influence to qualify memories in a more positive light than they would under regular circumstances.

In other words, positive memories are perceived as more vivid, emotional and positive, and negative memories are felt as being less negative.

The implications of these results, which suggest a clear positive emotional bias, are encouraging in relation to the potential therapeutic uses of MDMA. Indeed, preliminary research on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy has shown that this quality of MDMA could help people overcome PTSD.

The Study

The Effects of Acutely Administered 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine on Spontaneous Brain Function in Healthy Volunteers Measured with Arterial Spin Labelling and Blood Oxygen Level-Dependent Resting-State Functional Connectivity

Robin L. Carhart-Harris, Murphy Kevin, Leech Robert, Erritzoe David Matthew B. Wall, Ferguson Bart, Luke T.J. Williams, Roseman Leor, Brugger Stefan, Ineke De Meer, Tanner Mark, Tyacke Robin, Wolff Kim, Sethi Ajun, Michael A.P. Bloomfield, Tim M. Williams, Bolstridge Mark,Stewart Lorna, Morgan Celia, Rexford D. Newbould, Feilding Amanda, Curran H. Val, David J. Nutt


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3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) is a potent monoamine releaser that produces an acute euphoria in most individuals.


MDMA was orally administered to 25 physically and mentally healthy individuals in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, balanced-order study. Arterial spin labelling (ASL) and seed-based resting state functional connectivity (RSFC) were used to produce spatial maps displaying changes in cerebral blood flow (CBF) and RSFC after MDMA. Participants underwent two ASL and two BOLD scans in a 90 minute scanning session and the MDMA and placebo study days were separated by one week.


MDMA produced marked increases in positive mood. Only decreased CBF was observed after MDMA and this was localised to the right medial temporal lobe (MTL), thalamus, inferior visual cortex and the somatosensory cortex. Decreased CBF in the right amygdala and hippocampus correlated with ratings of the intensity of MDMA’s global subjective effects. The RSFC results complemented the CBF results, with decreases in RSFC between midline cortical regions, the medial prefrontal cortex and MTL regions, and increases between the amygdala and hippocampus. There were trend-level correlations between these effects and ratings of intense and positive subjective effects.


The MTLs appear to be specifically implicated in the mechanism of action of MDMA but further work is required to elucidate how the drug’s characteristic subjective effects arise from its modulation of spontaneous brain activity.


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