MDMA users more empathetic than people who take other drugs, study finds

Results could point towards possible medical use, say researchers

Chris Baynes
Thursday 07 February 2019 21:33 GMT
Non-profit organisation MAPS researches efficacy of MDMA on treating trauma

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Long-term users of MDMA are more empathetic than people who take other recreational drugs, according to a study.

Compared to users of cannabis, cocaine and ketamine, people who take ecstasy report feeling “significantly greater emotional empathy” and are better at identifying others’ emotions, researchers at the University of Exeter found.

MDMA is known to increase empathy for a short period, but the researchers said their findings could point to longer-term effects with implications for possible medical uses.

The study recruited long-term but mild users who have taken the drug a minimum of 10 times to reflect does that may be used for medical treatment.

Participants included 25 people who used multiple drugs including MDMA, 19 people who took multiple drugs not including MDMA, and 23 people who used only alcohol.

Each completed a questionnaire about their own empathy as well as computerised tasks in which they identified emotions on the faces of others. They also reported how strongly they felt emotions based on seeing others in emotional states.

Researchers said ecstasy users reported feeling significantly greater emotional empathy and were revealed in the computer tasks to have greater cognitive empathy compared to people who used multiple drugs not including MDMA.

There was little difference between the MDMA group and the alcohol-only group.

The levels of empathy and social pain in MDMA users were consistent with “normal psychosocial functioning”, contradicting previous suggestions that long-term ecstasy use may cause heightened social distress, researchers said.

The study has been published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Professor Celia Morgan, senior author of the research, said: “We can’t say whether differences in empathy are due to taking MDMA, or whether there were already differences in the people who use MDMA and those who don’t before they started taking the drug.

"But, importantly, this study suggests that MDMA may be used safely as a treatment without side effects on these crucial social processes.”

Researchers at King’s College London last year found MDMA makes people more inclined to cooperate on tasks and quicker to rebuild trust.

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