A study of a large, nationally representative sample of American adults found that those who reported having used ecstasy in their lifetime (i.e., having used ecstasy at least once in life) were less likely to report having difficulty dealing with strangers, participating in social activities, and being prevented from participating in social activities due to their mental health issues. Participants who had used mescaline in their lifetime were also less likely to meet strangers. The study was published in Scientific reports.
Humans are social beings. We live in a society and performing literally any activity requires at least some interaction with other people or the use of things that others have created. Even activities that are inherently solitary are at least partly performed using tools and resources created by other people or using spaces created or respected by other people. For this reason, being able to interact competently with others and to function in a society is a key faculty of all humans.
However, impairments in social functioning are a hallmark feature of many different mental health disorders. These include generalized anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and others. The social impairments of individuals with these disorders account for a significant portion of the cost, both to individuals and to society, that these disorders inflict.
Unfortunately, methods for treating social functioning disorders are still very limited in their effectiveness. For this reason, researchers are constantly exploring new ways to prevent or treat these impairments. One area of research that has started to get a lot of scientific attention is using ecstasy or classic psychedelics for this purpose.
Ecstasy or 3,4-methylenedioxymetamphetamine (MDMA), as it is scientifically known, is one of the most widely abused recreational drugs in the world. It produces prosocial feelings and improves empathy and sociability. It is also known to produce hallucinogenic effects and facilitate a host of adverse mental health consequences with prolonged use.
First created in Germany as part of the search for a possible appetite suppressant, it is now banned in most of the world. However, preliminary evidence indicates that there may be a way to use ecstasy and conventional psychedelics to treat or improve symptoms of multiple mental health disorders.
The lead author of this study, Grant Jones, and his colleagues wanted to explore possible protective associations between the use of ecstasy and classic psychedelics and social impairments. They analyzed data from 214,505 participants in the National Survey of Drug Use and Health (2015-2019), an annual survey of substance use and mental health in the US population aged 12 and older. .
The researchers analyzed data on impairments in social functioning caused by mental health problems and emotional difficulties. These impairments were difficulty interacting with strangers (“How much difficulty did you have dealing with people you did not know well?”), inability to interact with strangers due to mental health issues (“Do you have problems with your emotions, nerves, or mental health preventing you from dealing with people you didn’t know well?”), difficulty participating in social activities (“How have you had difficulty participating in social activities, such as visiting friends or going to parties?”), and being prevented from engaging in social activities due to mental health issues (” emotional, nervous or mental health problems prevent you from participating in social activities?”).
Jones and colleagues also analyzed participants’ responses to questions about lifetime use of ecstasy, psilocybin, LSD, peyote and mescaline, and various other legal and illegal substances as well as risky behaviors. . They were yes/no questions. The person was supposed to answer yes if they had used the drug in question at least once in their life. Sociodemographic data was also used in the study.
The results showed that people who reported having used ecstasy at least once in their lifetime (lifetime ecstasy use) had a lower likelihood of three of the four social impairments studied. Lifetime use of mescaline was associated with a lower likelihood of one of the social impairments.
Additionally, those who reported lifetime ecstasy use tended to be younger, slightly more often male, and less often married. They reported engaging in risky behaviors more often. There was no difference in household income between participants who reported lifetime ecstasy use and those who did not.
“The association between MDMA/ecstasy use and reduced risk of social impairment may be related to the effects of the drug on several critical neurotransmitters in the brain, namely dopamine and serotonin, which lie upstream other potential mechanisms at the neural and behavioral levels, mentioned later,” the researchers wrote.
“Some evidence suggests that MDMA-induced changes in these neurotransmitter receptor systems in the brain are indeed long-lasting, offering a plausible explanation for how limited MDMA consumption might be linked to persistent changes in social behavior. Since MDMA primarily impacts serotonin levels, it should be considered that the association between lifetime MDMA use and reduced risk of social impairment may ultimately be related to changes in serotonergic neurotransmission.
The study contributes to scientific knowledge about associations between psychedelic use and behavior. However, it also has limitations that must be taken into account. In particular, the study does not allow conclusions of cause and effect to be drawn. It is possible that ecstasy use does have effects on social functioning or may prevent social impairments. However, it is also possible that people with better social skills and more resilient to social impairments are also more likely to try ecstasy as part of their social activities. In addition, all ratings were based on self-reports.
The study, “Examining Associations Between MDMA/Ecstasy and Classic Psychedelic Use and Disorders of Social Functioning in a Sample of American Adults,” was authored by Grant Jones, Joshua Lipson, and Erica Wang.