Effects of 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine on Conditioned Fear Extinction and Retention in a Crossover Study in Healthy Subjects

Front Pharmacol. 2022 Jul 13;13:906639. doi: 10.3389/fphar.2022.906639. eCollection 2022.


Background: 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) has shown initial promise as an adjunct in psychotherapy to treat posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Its efficacy and safety have been demonstrated across phase I-III studies. However, the mechanism underlying the potential utility of MDMA to treat PTSD in humans has not yet been thoroughly investigated. Preliminary evidence suggests that MDMA may facilitate fear extinction recall, which may be through the release of oxytocin. To test this hypothesis, we examined the efficacy of acute MDMA treatment to enhance fear extinction learning and recall. Methods: We used a two-period, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled crossover design in 30 healthy male subjects who received a placebo and a single dose of MDMA (125 mg). Fear extinction was tested using two separate Pavlovian fear conditioning paradigms, one using skin conductance response (SCR), and the other fear-potentiated startle (FPS) to conditioned cues. MDMA treatment occurred after fear conditioning and 2 h before extinction learning. Extinction recall was tested 23 h after MDMA intake. Additional outcome measures included subjective effects, emotion recognition tasks, plasma levels of oxytocin, and pharmacokinetics. Results: Fear conditioning and extinction learning were successful in both fear extinction paradigms (generalized eta-squared [ges] for SCR: 0.08; FPS: 0.07). Compared to placebo treatment, MDMA treatment significantly reduced SCRs to the reinforced conditioned stimulus (CS+) during extinction learning (ges = 0.03) and recall (ges = 0.06). Intensity of the subjective effects of MDMA (good effect, trust, and openness) during extinction learning negatively correlated with the discrimination between CS+ and the safety stimulus (CS-) during recall. MDMA did not influence FPS to conditioned cues. Oxytocin concentration was increased fourfold on average by MDMA during acute effects but was not associated with fear extinction outcomes. Conclusions: MDMA treatment facilitated rapid fear extinction and retention of extinction as measured by SCR to fear cues, in line with animal studies of MDMA facilitation of extinction. However, this effect may be limited to certain forms of learned fear responses, as it was not observed in the extinction model using startle reactivity as the outcome. This study provides further evidence for the facilitation of extinction with MDMA treatment and suggests this may be a component of its efficacy when paired with psychotherapy. Clinical Trial registration: clinicaltrials.gov identifier: NCT03527316.

Keywords: MDMA and fear extinction paradigms; fear extinction; fear-potentiated startle; healthy subjects; oxytocin; skin conductance response.

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT03527316