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      MDMA enhances emotional empathy and prosocial behavior

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          Abstract

          3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, 'ecstasy') releases serotonin and norepinephrine. MDMA is reported to produce empathogenic and prosocial feelings. It is unknown whether MDMA in fact alters empathic concern and prosocial behavior. We investigated the acute effects of MDMA using the Multifaceted Empathy Test (MET), dynamic Face Emotion Recognition Task (FERT) and Social Value Orientation (SVO) test. We also assessed effects of MDMA on plasma levels of hormones involved in social behavior using a placebo-controlled, double-blind, random-order, cross-over design in 32 healthy volunteers (16 women). MDMA enhanced explicit and implicit emotional empathy in the MET and increased prosocial behavior in the SVO test in men. MDMA did not alter cognitive empathy in the MET but impaired the identification of negative emotions, including fearful, angry and sad faces, in the FERT, particularly in women. MDMA increased plasma levels of cortisol and prolactin, which are markers of serotonergic and noradrenergic activity, and of oxytocin, which has been associated with prosocial behavior. In summary, MDMA sex-specifically altered the recognition of emotions, emotional empathy and prosociality. These effects likely enhance sociability when MDMA is used recreationally and may be useful when MDMA is administered in conjunction with psychotherapy in patients with social dysfunction or post-traumatic stress disorder.

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          Most cited references 37

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          Oxytocin modulates neural circuitry for social cognition and fear in humans.

          In non-human mammals, the neuropeptide oxytocin is a key mediator of complex emotional and social behaviors, including attachment, social recognition, and aggression. Oxytocin reduces anxiety and impacts on fear conditioning and extinction. Recently, oxytocin administration in humans was shown to increase trust, suggesting involvement of the amygdala, a central component of the neurocircuitry of fear and social cognition that has been linked to trust and highly expresses oxytocin receptors in many mammals. However, no human data on the effects of this peptide on brain function were available. Here, we show that human amygdala function is strongly modulated by oxytocin. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to image amygdala activation by fear-inducing visual stimuli in 15 healthy males after double-blind crossover intranasal application of placebo or oxytocin. Compared with placebo, oxytocin potently reduced activation of the amygdala and reduced coupling of the amygdala to brainstem regions implicated in autonomic and behavioral manifestations of fear. Our results indicate a neural mechanism for the effects of oxytocin in social cognition in the human brain and provide a methodology and rationale for exploring therapeutic strategies in disorders in which abnormal amygdala function has been implicated, such as social phobia or autism.
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            Oxytocin improves "mind-reading" in humans.

            The ability to "read the mind" of other individuals, that is, to infer their mental state by interpreting subtle social cues, is indispensable in human social interaction. The neuropeptide oxytocin plays a central role in social approach behavior in nonhuman mammals. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, within-subject design, 30 healthy male volunteers were tested for their ability to infer the affective mental state of others using the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET) after intranasal administration of 24 IU oxytocin. Oxytocin improved performance on the RMET compared with placebo. This effect was pronounced for difficult compared with easy items. Our data suggest that oxytocin improves the ability to infer the mental state of others from social cues of the eye region. Oxytocin might play a role in the pathogenesis of autism spectrum disorder, which is characterized by severe social impairment.
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              Functional magnetic resonance imaging of reward prediction.

              Technical and conceptual advances in functional magnetic resonance imaging now allow visualization of real-time changes in oxygenation of deep subcortical regions, leading to rapid advances in scientific characterization of the neural substrates that underlie reward prediction in humans. Neuroimaging research over the past year has focused on determining the necessary neural substrates for reward prediction. While the orbitofrontal cortex has long been implicated in modality-specific reward representation, the ventral striatum (particularly the nucleus accumbens) may play a role in modality-independent representations of predicted reward. On the other hand, the mesial prefrontal cortex appears to play a role in representing reward prediction error and the dorsal caudate in linking reward to behavior. Theoretically, future studies will need to establish the specificity of these responses to reward versus punishment and anticipation versus outcome. Clinically, current findings suggest that patients can predict reward without a prefrontal cortex, but should experience difficulty correcting their behavior when reward predictions are violated.
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                Author and article information

                Journal
                Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
                Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci
                Oxford University Press (OUP)
                1749-5016
                1749-5024
                November 04 2014
                November 2014
                November 2014
                October 04 2013
                : 9
                : 11
                : 1645-1652
                Article
                10.1093/scan/nst161
                24097374
                © 2013

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