Rave new world

The street drug Ecstasy — formally known as 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, or MDMA — gives people who take it a sense of well-being and makes them extremely sociable, even instilling feelings of unguarded empathy for strangers.

It’s most known for its widespread use at raves — crowded dance parties featuring electronic dance music and light shows.

Illustration by Gary Taxali

If the drug’s downside — its abuse potential — can be eliminated, it may also become known as a good medicine for psychiatry. In a study conducted in mice that was published Dec. 11 in Science Translational Medicine, anesthesiologist Boris Heifets, MD, PhD, and neuroscientist Robert Malenka, MD, PhD, appear to have succeeded in driving a wedge between MDMA’s pro-social effects and its addictive properties. Heifets is the lead author and Malenka is the senior author of the study.

The researchers believe the discovery could lead to better treatments for psychiatric disorders ranging from autism to schizophrenia, which are marked by social awkwardness and withdrawal. MDMA is already in late-stage clinical trials as an adjunct to psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some 25 million people in the United States who suffer from PTSD could benefit from a drug capable of establishing, with a single dose in a therapist’s office, a bond of trust that typically takes months or years to achieve, Heifets said.

MDMA’s darker effects would be highly unlikely to occur in the one or two sessions required for patient-therapist bonding, he added.

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