The power of MDMA to facilitate psychotherapy was first harnessed by Sasha Shulgin, who developed a method for synthesising the drug in 1965 and noted that it produced an “easily controlled altered state of consciousness with emotional and sensual overtones.” Because of this phenomenon, MDMA is often referred to as an “entactogen” (meaning “touching within”) or an “empathogen” (“generating empathy”), and it perhaps unsurprising that the compound has been so successfully used to treat emotional disorders like PTSD. More research is required in order to fully understand how this effect is produced, although previous studies have found that the compound increases the concentrations of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain.

Our research with MDMA

In 2012, the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme’s brain imaging study of MDMA was featured on 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.

This research, combined with further brain-imaging studies carried out at University College London, demonstrates how MDMA enhances self-acceptance and creates a positive emotional bias, where good memories are experienced as better and bad memories become more tolerable. Importantly, we also showed that certain brain regions associated with memory and emotion play a key role in mediating the mood-enhancing effects of MDMA.

Research Highlights

Ongoing and Planned Studies

Published Papers of Completed Studies