Empathy study finds low dose of MDMA makes people feel more concerned for others

A team of researchers from the Netherlands and Switzerland have confirmed that the drug 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) — commonly known as ecstasy or molly — enhances empathy towards others.

The findings, published April 3 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, are based on a pooled sample of 118 participants from six double-blind placebo-controlled studies. The participants ingested either 75 mg or 125 mg of MDMA or a placebo pill before completing an empathy test.

The researchers found that MDMA did not significantly influence cognitive empathy, meaning the ability to correctly identify the emotions of another person. But the drug did enhance emotional empathy, meaning the affective response to another person’s emotional state.

A number of potentially moderating factors — including the sex of the participant, plasma concentrations of MDMA and oxytocin, trait empathy, and lifetime MDMA use — appeared to play little to no role in the enhanced empathic response produced by MDMA.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Kim PC Kuypers of Maastricht University. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Kuypers: In 2008, after having focused on the negative effects of MDMA we shifted focus and got a grant to investigate the positive effects of MDMA. We know from anecdotal reports that MDMA has positive effects. We wanted to objectify those by means of laboratory tasks.

What should the average person take away from your study?

MDMA enhances emotional empathy. After intake of a single –low- dose of MDMA people feel more concerned for people experiencing emotions and feel more aroused by the emotions they see. The ability to recognize emotions is not impaired.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

1) We are still not sure about the neurobiological mechanisms underlying this, this should be addressed.

2) Computerized tests using static emotions were used, more dynamic stimuli are needed to increase the ecological validity.

The study, “Multifaceted empathy of healthy volunteers after single doses of MDMA: A pooled sample of placebo-controlled studies“, was also co-authored by Patrick C. Dolder, Johannes G. Ramaekers, and Matthias E. Liechti.