OPEN Foundation

T. Stevens

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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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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