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Inhibition of serotonin transporters disrupts the enhancement of fear memory extinction by 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)

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3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) persistently improves symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when combined with psychotherapy. Studies in rodents suggest that these effects can be attributed to enhancement of fear memory extinction. Therefore, MDMA may improve the effects of exposure-based therapy for PTSD, particularly in treatment-resistant patients. However, given MDMA’s broad pharmacological profile, further investigation is warranted before moving to a complex clinical population.


We aimed to inform clinical research by providing a translational model of MDMA’s effect, and elucidating monoaminergic mechanisms through which MDMA enhances fear extinction.


We explored the importance of monoamine transporters targeted by MDMA to fear memory extinction, as measured by reductions in conditioned freezing and fear-potentiated startle (FPS) in mice. Mice were treated with selective inhibitors of individual monoamine transporters prior to combined MDMA treatment and fear extinction training.


MDMA enhanced the lasting extinction of FPS. Acute and chronic treatment with a 5-HT transporter (5-HTT) inhibitor blocked MDMA’s effect on fear memory extinction. Acute inhibition of dopamine (DA) and norepinephrine (NE) transporters had no effect. 5-HT release alone did not enhance extinction. Blockade of MDMA’s effect by 5-HTT inhibition also downregulated 5-HT2A-mediated behavior, and 5-HT2A antagonism disrupted MDMA’s effect on extinction.


We validate enhancement of fear memory extinction by MDMA in a translational behavioral model, and reveal the importance of 5-HTT and 5-HT2A receptors to this effect. These observations support future clinical research of MDMA as an adjunct to exposure therapy, and provide important pharmacological considerations for clinical use in a population frequently treated with 5-HTT inhibitors.

Young, M. B., Norrholm, S. D., Khoury, L. M., Jovanovic, T., Rauch, S. A., Reiff, C. M., … & Howell, L. L. (2017). Inhibition of serotonin transporters disrupts the enhancement of fear memory extinction by 3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). Psychopharmacology234(19), 2883-2895. 10.1007/s00213-017-4684-8
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