The power of MDMA to facilitate psychotherapy was first harnessed by Sasha Shulgin, who developed a method for synthesising the drug in 1965 and noted that it produced an “easily controlled altered state of consciousness with emotional and sensual overtones.” Because of this phenomenon, MDMA is often referred to as an “entactogen” (meaning “touching within”) or an “empathogen” (“generating empathy”), and it perhaps unsurprising that the compound has been so successfully used to treat emotional disorders like PTSD. More research is required in order to fully understand how this effect is produced, although previous studies have found that the compound increases the concentrations of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain.

Our research with MDMA

In 2012, the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme’s brain imaging study of MDMA was featured on the Channel 4 programme Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial. This was the first detailed study to map the neural underpinnings of MDMA’s effects and to explain why it is so valuable for psychotherapy. This research, combined with further brain-imaging studies carried out at University College London, demonstrates how MDMA enhances self-acceptance and creates a positive emotional bias, where good memories are experienced as better and bad memories become more tolerable. Importantly, we also showed that certain brain regions associated with memory and emotion play a key role in mediating the mood-enhancing effects of MDMA.

Our policy work with MDMA

In 2019, the Beckley Foundation published the first-ever report specifically for regulating MDMA. Drawing on decades of scientific evidence, Roadmaps to Regulation: MDMA – the first report of its kind – closely details the risks and harms associated with MDMA use in the context of prohibition, whilst setting out the benefits of alternative policies for a safer future.

The authors present a detailed plan for policy change which includes the decriminalisation of MDMA and other commonly used drugs, as well as the creation of a strictly regulated, legal market for MDMA products to ensure the safety of consumers.

Drugs such as MDMA are also subject to ‘Schedules’, which restricts how they are used in medical research. The report’s authors recommend rescheduling the drug to support existing and future scientific research on its clinical benefits.

MDMA Highlights

Published Papers of Completed Studies