Empathogen drugs Graphics courtesy of Wikipparel Opens in new window

An empathogen (a term that means producing empathy) is a psychoactive drug that induces social and emotional effects such as empathy and a desire for social bonding.

The best-known empathogen is MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), also known by street names Ecstasy, XTC, E, X, and Adam. MDMA is chemically similar to methamphetamine (a stimulant) and mescaline (a hallucinogen).

  • MDMA has energizing effects;
  • can produce euphoria and distortions in time and perceptions;
  • increase enjoyment of tactile experiences;
  • decrease fear and anxiety; and
  • create a sense of intimacy with others.

MDMA was developed in Germany in the early 1900s as a compound to synthesize other pharmaceuticals. Although it had never undergone formal clinical testing, in the 1970s, some psychiatrists began using MDMA as a psychotherapeutic tool (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2006).

Because of its ability to reduce anxiety and lower defensiveness, MDMA was perceived to enhance communication in therapy sessions (e.g., couples therapy). Currently studies are exploring the potential use of MDMA in treating posttraumatic stress disorder (Ruse, Jerome, Mithoefer, Dobln, & Gibson, 2008).

MDMA and other empathogens are included in the category “club drugs”—psychoactive drugs used recreationally at nightclubs or raves (weekend-long dance parties). Besides MDMA, common club drugs include GHB (soap), Rohypnol (roofies), ketamine (Vitamin K), methamphetamine (speed), and acide (LSD).

When used recreationally, MDMA is rarely used alone. It is often used together with substances such as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and other clubs (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2006, 2008).

MDMA affects the brain by increasing the activity of the neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain) serotonin, dopamine, and norepinphrine.

Some animal research indicates that MDMA may also activate neurons that contain oxytocin, which is thought to increase sociability and bonding behaviors (Thompson, Callaghan, Hunt, Cornish, & McGregor, 2007).

Side effects of MDMA may include anxiety, agitation, nausea, chils, clenching of jaws or grinding of teeth (bruxis), muscle cramping, and blurred vision. MDMA overdose can result in high blood pressure, faintness, panic attacks, loss of consciousness, and seizures.

MDMA taken in conjunction with vigorous physical activity (e.g., dancing for many hours) can cause hyperthermia (a marked increase in body temperature); without prompt medical attention, this can result in high blood pressure, dehydration, kidney failure, and heart failure. Some tablets sold as Ecstasy contain other drugs such as methamphetamine, caffeine, dextromethorphan (a cough suppressant), ephedrine (a diet drug), or cocaine.

The combination of MDMA and iprindole (a tricyclic antidepressant) can be fatal. Animal studies have demonstrated that MDMA taken during pregnancy can affect the brain of the developing fetus and have significant adverse effects on tests of memory and learning (Broening, Morford, Inman-Wood, Fukumura, & Vorhees, 2001).

More research is needed to determine the effects of MDMA on the developing human fetus. After the effects of MDMA have worn off, MDMA users may experience anxiety, restlessness, irritability, aggression, sadness, sleep and appetite disturbances, decreased interest in sex, confusion, and impairment of attention and working memory (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2006).

Another empathogen is MDA (Tenamfetamine), also known as the love drug. It was investigated as a possible treatment for Parkinson’s disease in 1941 and as an antidepressant, cough suppressant, and appetite suppressant in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1953, Harold Blauer died of an MDA overdoseOpens in new window in a U.S. army experiment into the use of MDA as a possible truth serum (Erowid, n.d.). MDA appeared as a recreational drug around 1963.

MDA is more toxic than MDMA and can cause overstimulation of the central nervous system. MDMA analogs (offshoots), such as 4-MTA (also known as Flatliners and Golden Eagles), continue to be developed. MDMA analogs, sometimes sold as MDMA, are considered designer drugs.

Designer drugs, often developed in an attempt to circumvent existing drug laws, may be riskier than better known substances because limited research has been done to understand their toxicology and pharmacology, and their development and manufacture may bypass typical safety standards.

In the United States, the Treatment of Controlled Substance Analogues section of the Controlled Substances Act (1986) makes it illegal to manufacture, sell, or possess many designer drugs, including MDMA analogs.

According to the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSIDUH), about 860,000 people over the age of 12 in the United States used MDMA for the first time in 2006, an increase from 615,000 first-time users in 2005.

Most new users (70.1%) were 18 years or older; average age of first-time use in 2006 was 20.6 years of age. The Monitoring the Future Survey showed that past-year MDMA abuse among 12th graders in the United States increased from 3.0 percent in 2005 to 4.5 percent in 2007. In 2007, 6.5 percent of 12th graders reported using MDMA at some point in their lives (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2008).

See also:
  1. Broening, H.W., Morford, L.L., Inman-Wood, S.L., Fukumura, M., & Vorhees, C.V. (2001). 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (Ecstasy)-induced learning and memory impairments depend on the age of exposure during early development. Journal of Neuroscience, 21, 3228 – 3235.
  2. Ruse, J.M., Jerome, L., Mithoefer, M.C., Doblin, R., & Gibson, E. (2008). MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder: A revised teaching manual draft.
  3. Thompson, M.R., Callaghan, P.D., Hunt, G.E., Cornish, J.L., & McGregor, I.S. (2007). A role for oxytocin and 5-HT(IA) receptors in the prosocial effects of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (“Ecstasy”). Neuroscience, 146, 509 – 514.