Effects of MDMA and intranasal oxytocin on social and emotional processing

Matthew G. Kirkpatrick, Royce Lee, Margaret C. Wardle, Suma Jacob, Harriet De Wit

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108 Scopus citations


MDMA (±3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, 'ecstasy') is used recreationally, reportedly because it increases feelings of empathy, sociability, and interpersonal closeness. One line of evidence suggests that MDMA produces these effects by releasing oxytocin, a peptide involved in social bonding. In the current study, we investigated the acute effects of MDMA and oxytocin on social and emotional processing in healthy human volunteers. MDMA users (N=65) participated in a 4-session, within-between-subjects study in which they received oral MDMA (0.75, 1.5 mg/kg), intranasal oxytocin (20 or 40 IU), or placebo under double-blind conditions. The primary outcomes included measures of emotion recognition and sociability (desire to be with others). Cardiovascular and subjective effects were also assessed. As expected, MDMA dose-dependently increased heart rate and blood pressure and feelings of euphoria (eg, 'High' and 'Like Drug'). On measures of social function, MDMA impaired recognition of angry and fearful facial expressions, and the larger dose (1.5 mg/kg) increased desire to be with others, compared with placebo. Oxytocin produced small but significant increases in feelings of sociability and enhanced recognition of sad facial expressions. Additionally, responses to oxytocin were related to responses to MDMA with subjects on two subjective measures of sociability. Thus, MDMA increased euphoria and feelings of sociability, perhaps by reducing sensitivity to subtle signs of negative emotions in others. The present findings provide only limited support for the idea that oxytocin produces the prosocial effects of MDMA.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1654-1663
Number of pages10
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jun 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We gratefully acknowledge Jon Solamillo, Celina Joos, Michael Helzer and Charles Frye for technical assistance, Emmanuel Semmes for pharmaceutical support, Gillinder Bedi for contributing to the study design and Matthew Baggott for providing valuable advice on the manuscript. This research was supported by NIH grants DA02812 and DA026570 (PI: Harriet de Wit).


  • Emotion
  • Humans
  • MDMA
  • Mood
  • Oxytocin
  • Social behavior


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