OPEN Foundation

C. Morgan

Greater empathy in MDMA users

3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) is widely known for its positive acute effects on social behaviour, such as increasing empathy, whilst also attenuating the negative impact of social exclusion. However there is a scarcity of research that investigates the long-term impact of recreational MDMA use on these fundamental social processes.

Sixty-seven individuals were split into three groups based on their drug-use history: poly-drug MDMA users (n = 25), poly-drug users who do not use MDMA (n = 19), alcohol-only users (n = 23), and were tested in an independent groups design. Participants completed both a self-report measure of emotional and cognitive empathy, along with the Multifaceted Empathy Task – a computerised assessment of empathy – and the Cyberball Game – a social exclusion paradigm.

MDMA users had significantly greater subjective emotional empathy, and greater cognitive empathy on the computer task compared with the poly-drug users who do not use MDMA. There were no significant differences in subjective responses to social exclusion between the groups. Indices of MDMA use did not correlate with empathy.

Long-term MDMA users in this sample exhibited normal psychosocial functioning in regard to empathy and social pain and had higher subjective emotional empathy. This conflicts with previous suggestions that moderate, long-term MDMA use may cause heightened social distress, and is further evidence of the safety of the drug, which is relevant to considerations of its therapeutic use.
Carlyle, M., Stevens, T., Fawaz, L., Marsh, B., Kosmider, S., & Morgan, C. J. (2019). Greater empathy in MDMA users. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 0269881119826594., 10.1177/0269881119826594
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Ketamine for the treatment of addiction: Evidence and potential mechanisms

Abstract

Ketamine is a dissociative anaesthetic drug which acts on the central nervous system chiefly through antagonism of the n-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptor. Recently, ketamine has attracted attention as a rapid-acting anti-depressant but other studies have also reported its efficacy in reducing problematic alcohol and drug use. This review explores the preclinical and clinical research into ketamine’s ability to treat addiction. Despite methodological limitations and the relative infancy of the field, results thus far are promising. Ketamine has been shown to effectively prolong abstinence from alcohol and heroin in detoxified alcoholics and heroin dependent individuals, respectively. Moreover, ketamine reduced craving for and self-administration of cocaine in non-treatment seeking cocaine users. However, further randomised controlled trials are urgently needed to confirm ketamine’s efficacy. Possible mechanisms by which ketamine may work within addiction include: enhancement of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, disruption of relevant functional neural networks, treating depressive symptoms, blocking reconsolidation of drug-related memories, provoking mystical experiences and enhancing psychological therapy efficacy. Identifying the mechanisms by which ketamine exerts its therapeutic effects in addiction, from the many possible candidates, is crucial for advancing this treatment and may have broader implications understanding other psychedelic therapies. In conclusion, ketamine shows great promise as a treatment for various addictions, but well-controlled research is urgently needed.
Ezquerra-Romano, I. I., Lawn, W., Krupitsky, E., & Morgan, C. J. A. (2018). Ketamine for the treatment of addiction: Evidence and potential mechanisms. Neuropharmacology. 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2018.01.017
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Well-being, problematic alcohol consumption and acute subjective drug effects in past-year ayahuasca users: a large, international, self-selecting online survey

Abstract

Ayahuasca is a natural psychedelic brew, which contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Its potential as a psychiatric medicine has recently been demonstrated and its non-medical use around the world appears to be growing. We aimed to investigate well-being and problematic alcohol use in ayahuasca users, and ayahuasca’s subjective effects. An online, self-selecting, global survey examining patterns of drug use was conducted in 2015 and 2016 (n = 96,901). Questions were asked about: use of ayahuasca, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and magic mushrooms; demographics, current well-being and past-year problematic alcohol use of past-year ayahuasca users and comparison drug users; and subjective effects of ayahuasca and comparison drugs. Ayahuasca users (n = 527) reported greater well-being than both classic psychedelic users (n = 18,138) and non-psychedelic drug-using respondents (n = 78,236). Ayahuasca users reported less problematic drinking than classic psychedelic users, although both groups reported greater problematic drinking than the other respondents. Ayahuasca’s acute subjective effects usually lasted for six hours and were most strongly felt one hour after consumption. Within our online, self-selecting survey, ayahuasca users reported better well-being than comparison groups and less problematic drinking than classic psychedelic users. Future longitudinal studies of international samples and randomised controlled trials are needed to dissect the effects of ayahuasca on these outcomes.
Lawn, W., Hallak, J. E., Crippa, J. A., Santos, R., Porffy, L., Barratt, M. J., … & Morgan, C. J. (2017). Well-being, problematic alcohol consumption and acute subjective drug effects in past-year ayahuasca users: a large, international, self-selecting online survey. Scientific reports7(1), 15201. 10.1038/s41598-017-14700-6
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A proof-of-concept investigation into ketamine as a pharmacological treatment for alcohol dependence: study protocol for a randomised controlled trial

Abstract

Background

Worldwide, alcohol abuse is a burgeoning problem. Abstinence is key to allow recovery of physical and mental health as well as quality of life, but treatment for alcohol dependence is associated with high relapse rates. Preliminary data have suggested that a combined repeated ketamine and psychological therapy programme may be effective in reducing relapse in severe alcohol use disorder. This non-commercial proof-of-concept trial is aimed at making a preliminary assessment of the effectiveness of this combined treatment in this patient group.

Methods/design

This is a phase II, randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group clinical trial taking place in two sites in the UK: the South West of England and London. Ninety-six recently detoxified alcoholics, with comorbid depressive symptoms, will be randomised to one of four treatment arms. Patients will receive either three sessions of ketamine (0.8 mg/kg administered intravenously (IV) over 40 minutes) or placebo (50 ml saline 0.9% IV over 40 minutes) plus either seven sessions of manualised psychological therapy or an alcohol education control. Patients will be assessed at 3 and 6 months on a range of psychological and biological variables. The primary endpoints are (1) relapse rates at 6 months and (2) percentage days abstinent at 6 months. Secondary endpoints include 3 and 6 month percentage days abstinence, tolerability (indicated by dropout), adverse events, depressive symptoms, craving and quality of life.

Discussion

This study will provide important information on a new combined psychological and pharmacological intervention aimed at reducing relapse rates in alcoholics. The findings would have broad application given the worldwide prevalence of alcoholism and its associated medical, psychological and social problems.

McAndrew, A., Lawn, W., Stevens, T., Porffy, L., Brandner, B., & Morgan, C. J. (2017). A proof-of-concept investigation into ketamine as a pharmacological treatment for alcohol dependence: study protocol for a randomised controlled trial. Trials18(1), 159. 10.1186/s13063-017-1895-6
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Tripping up addiction: the use of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of problematic drug and alcohol use

Abstract

Psychedelic drugs have been used as treatments in indigenous cultures for thousands of years. Yet, due to their legal status, there has been limited scientific research into the therapeutic potential of these compounds for psychiatric disorders. In the absence of other effective treatments however, researchers have begun again to systematically investigate such compounds and there is now evidence pointing to the use of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of addiction. In this review we focus on human evidence for the effectiveness of preparations used by indigenous cultures in the Amazon (ayahausca) and Africa (ibogaine) and worldwide (psilocybin), and more recently synthetised drugs such as the serotonergic hallucinogen LSD and the dissociative anaesthetic ketamine. Potential mechanisms explored are anti-depressant effects, changes in neuroplasticity and existential psychological effects of these drugs.

Morgan, C., McAndrew, A., Stevens, T., Nutt, D., & Lawn, W. (2017). Tripping up addiction: the use of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of problematic drug and alcohol use. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 13, 71-76. 10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.10.009
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