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Discriminative Stimulus Properties of MDMA: The Role of Serotonin and Dopamine

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Abstract

Rationale: ±3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, “ecstasy”) produces unique and complex subjective effects which distinguish it from other recreationally used drugs. An understanding of the neurochemical mechanisms that underlie these effects is important in order to assess the potential for MDMA abuse and to inform researchers exploring of the drug’s therapeutic potential. The present thesis investigated the neurochemical mechanisms underlying the subjective effects of MDMA using drug discrimination procedures in laboratory animals. Despite evidence that training dose can markedly impact the results of drug discrimination studies, the impact of training dose on the discriminative stimulus properties of MDMA has been largely overlooked. The broad aims of these experiments were 1) to test the ability of two different doses of MDMA to support drug discrimination learning, and 2) to determine the role of serotonin (5-HT) and dopamine (DA) neurotransmitter systems in producing the discriminative stimulus effects of each MDMA training dose. 

Methods: Groups of rats were trained to discriminate MDMA (1.5 or 3.0 mg/kg) from saline or to discriminate MDMA (1.5 or 3.0 mg/kg) from amphetamine (0.5 mg/kg) and saline, using two- or three-lever, food-reinforced drug discrimination procedures. The first experiments determined the impact of training dose on the acquisition of the MDMA discrimination. Reliability of the discrimination was assessed by measuring the impact of changes in acquisition criteria. Once the discrimination had been acquired, generalisation tests were carried out in two-lever experiments with the SSRIs, fluoxetine and clomipramine, the 5-HT2 agonists, mCPP and DOI, and the 5-HT1 agonists, 8-OH-DPAT and RU-24969, to investigate the role of 5-HT in the discriminative stimulus effects of 1.5 mg/kg vs 3.0 mg/kg MDMA. Next, the role of DA was investigated in further generalisation test sessions with the DA releasing stimulant, AMPH, the non-selective D1/D2 agonist, apomorphine, the D1 agonist, SKF38393, and the D2 agonist, quinpirole. Finally, experiments were carried out in which the ability of the 5-HT2A antagonist, ketanserin, the 5-HT1B/1D antagonist, GR-127935, the 5-HT1A antagonist, WAY100635, the D1 antagonist, SCH23390, and the D2 antagonist, eticlopride, to attenuate the discriminative stimulus effects of 1.5 mg/kg vs 3.0 mg/kg MDMA was assessed.

Results: A higher training dose of MDMA was associated with a more rapid acquisition of drug discrimination in both the two- and three-lever tasks, and significant differences were observed with respect to the ability of each dose of MDMA to maintain consistently accurate discrimination across both tasks. All of the serotonin agonists that were tested generalised to the discriminative stimulus effects of 1.5 mg/kg MDMA in a two-lever discrimination task. In contrast, only agonists for 5-HT1A or 5-HT2A receptors generalised to the discriminative stimulus effects of 3.0 mg/kg MDMA. Non-selective dopamine agonists generalised to the discriminative stimulus effects of 3.0 mg/kg but not 1.5 mg/kg MDMA, whereas selective D1 and D2 agonists failed to generalise to the discriminative stimulus effects of either training dose. None of the DA or 5-HT antagonists tested had a marked impact of the discrimination of 1.5 mg/kg MDMA whereas administration of a D2 antagonist produced a small but significant attenuation on the discriminative stimulus effects of 3.0 mg/kg MDMA.

Conclusions: The results of the present thesis suggest that the discriminative stimulus effects of MDMA may change both quantitatively and qualitatively as a function of dose. The subjective effects produced by lower doses appear to be mediated primarily via serotonergic mechanisms, whereas higher doses may involve the additional recruitment of dopaminergic mechanisms. These findings have implications for our understanding of MDMA in terms of the drug’s potential for dependence and abuse.

Webster, J. (2016). Discriminative Stimulus Properties of MDMA: The Role of Serotonin and Dopamine. 10063/5622

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