Our research with MDMA

We have used brain imaging to examine changes in brain activity and associated changes in memories and emotions after MDMA, both as part of a collaboration with Val Curran at University College London, and in collaboration with Prof David Nutt and Dr Robin Carhart-Harris in the Beckley / Imperial Research Programme. We demonstrated that MDMA enhances self-compassion and self-acceptance, and reduces self-criticism. We also found that MDMA creates a positive emotional bias, where good memories are experienced as better and bad memories become more tolerable. Finally, our imaging findings suggest that brain regions associated with memory and emotion are key areas mediating the mood-enhancing effects of MDMA. Together, these findings add to the evidence that MDMA can be a powerful tool for facilitating desired emotional states, underscoring its candidacy as an aid to psychotherapy.

In 2012, the Beckley / Imperial Research Programme brain imaging study of MDMA was featured as part of the Channel 4 programme Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial. This was the first detailed study to map the neural underpinnings of MDMA’s effects, and to explain why it is so valuable for psychotherapy.

Based on our evidence of MDMA’s clinical potential, we are supporting a forthcoming MAPS study conducted by Prof Jon Bisson and Drs Ben Sessa and Mat Hoskins at Cardiff University on the effects of MDMA in patients suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In addition to investigating whether MDMA allows emotionally overwhelming memories to become more tolerable – as might be expected from our earlier research – the study will use fMRI to investigate the effects on brain blood flow. This will be the first study to explore the mechanisms of how MDMA might work as a therapeutic agent.


About MDMA

3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) was first synthesised and patented in 1914 by Merck as an intermediate compound for the synthesis of a substance designed to stop bleeding. In the 1950s MDMA was investigated (unsuccessfully) by the US military as a potential ‘truth serum.’ In 1965 Alexander Shulgin discovered a simpler synthesis method for MDMA, and was a crucial figure in the early research into its psychological effects. He reported that MDMA produced an “easily controlled altered state of consciousness with emotional and sensual overtones” (Shulgin, 1986) and suggested its potential uses as an adjunct to psychotherapy. However, MDMA was added to the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Drugs, categorising it as a drug ‘with no supposed potential for medical use.’

MDMA has structural similarities to both classic hallucinogens such as mescaline and stimulants such as amphetamine, however its physiological effects are quite different from both. Its unique psychological effects have led to its classification as an ‘entactogen’ (‘touching within,’ from ‘en’ = within, ‘tactus’ = touch, and ‘gen’ = produce), although other researchers prefer the term ‘empathogen’ (‘generating empathy’). MDMA acts on the brain by increasing the concentration of certain brain chemicals (‘neurotransmitters,’ specifically serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine) by both enhancing their release and blocking their recycling after release. However, little is known about how this translates into the characteristic changes in consciousness and what underlies its therapeutic potential.

“MDMA, it was beginning to be apparent, could be all things to all people.”
Alexander Shulgin, Pihkal: A Chemical Love Story

Our Puplished studies on MDMA

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

Biological psychiatry, 2014

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Recreational 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA) or 'ecstasy' and self-focused compassion: Preliminary steps in the development of a therapeutic psychopharmacology of contemplative practices

Journal of Psychopharmacology, 2015

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Roadmaps to Regulation: Cannabis, Psychedelics, MDMA, and NPS

Amanda Feilding (Coordinating Editor) and Nicola Singleton, with additional input from Alex Stevens, 2016

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The effects of psilocybin and MDMA on between-network resting state functional connectivity in healthy volunteers

Frontiers in human neuroscience, 2014

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The effect of acutely administered MDMA on subjective and BOLD-fMRI responses to favourite and worst autobiographical memories

 International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 2014

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Investigating the mechanisms of hallucinogen-induced visions using 3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine (MDA): a randomized controlled trial in humans

PloS one, 2010

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