Researchers say they've discovered how the club drug Ecstasy acts on the brain, and their findings suggest the drug might be useful in treating anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The study included 25 volunteers who underwent two functional MRI brain scans -- one after taking Ecstasy (MDMA) and one after taking a placebo. Both times, the participants did not know which substance they had been given.
Ecstasy decreased activity in the brain's limbic system, which is involved in emotional responses. The drug also reduced communication between the brain's medial temporal lobe and medial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in emotional control, according to the study, which was published in the 13 January 2014 online edition of the journal Biological Psychiatry.
These effects are the opposite of brain patterns that occur in people with anxiety, said the researchers, from Imperial College London, in England.
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The researchers also found that Ecstasy increased communication between the amygdala and the hippocampus. Previous research has shown that people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have reduced communication between these brain areas.
"We found that MDMA caused reduced blood flow in regions of the brain linked to emotion and memory," study author Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, of the department of medicine, said in a college news release. "These effects may be related to the feelings of euphoria that people experience on the drug."
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"In healthy volunteers, MDMA seems to lessen the impact of painful memories," Carhart-Harris said. "This fits with the idea that it could help patients with PTSD revisit their traumatic experiences in psychotherapy without being overwhelmed by negative emotions, but we need to do studies in PTSD patients to see if the drug affects them in the same way."
Another researcher advised caution in applying the study results to other groups of people.
"The findings suggest possible clinical uses of MDMA in treating anxiety and PTSD, but we need to be careful about drawing too many conclusions from a study in healthy volunteers," study co-leader David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology, said in the news release. "We would have to do studies in patients to see if we find the same effects."
A recent pilot study in the United States investigated the use of MDMA along with psychotherapy in the treatment of PTSD patients and yielded positive results, the researchers said.
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Image credit: ecstacy, aka the love drug, from Shutterstock