MDMA (methylenedioxy-methylamphetamine) is the active ingredient in the party drug Ecstasy, which is used illegally at raves, parties, and clubs to achieve a heightened sense of euphoria and a myriad of psychedelic effects. It’s sometimes called the “love drug” because it affects serotonin levels in the brain, which lowers normal social anxieties and brings people closer together.

The United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) classifies MDMA as a Schedule I drug, which means that it’s illegal, potentially addictive and very likely to be abused. However, despite its danger as a recreational drug, researchers have been exploring therapeutic uses for MDMA and looking at exactly how it affects the brain. Here are some of the surprising discoveries to come out of this research.

It Doesn’t Cause Brain Damage

The American anti-drug crusade of the 1980s included billboards and television ads warning people of the physical damages of illegal drugs. One memorable message of this campaign was that MDMA created “holes in your brain”. Supposedly, these “holes” would result in memory loss, lack of coordination and impaired speech. The conventional belief was that MDMA affected memory because it acts on the limbic region of the brain, which is where memories are formed and stored. However, contemporary research shows that this is not typical for the average casual user. In a 2011 study published in the Addiction Journal, researchers at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts tested the cognitive function of 52 regular MDMA users and 52 non-users. The results showed that there was no significant reduction of brain function among the MDMA users. The only difference between the two groups was that the users were more likely to have issues with impulse control.

It’s A Potential Treatment For PTSD

For decades, psychiatrists and psychotherapists have believed that MDMA can play a role in treating PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) because of how it acts on the brain’s memory center. The medical community initially resisted the idea of treating people with an illegal substance, but the dramatic rise of PTSD diagnoses in the early 2000s and the ineffectiveness of conventional treatments spurred numerous clinical studies of MDMA-assisted therapy.

In a groundbreaking 2011 study published in the Journal of Pharmacology, 83% of the PTSD subjects showed substantial improvement, including fewer flashbacks, nightmares and avoidant behaviors, less daily fear and anxiety, better interpersonal relationships, and a general sense of well-being. A four-year follow-up study showed that 89% of the participants maintained their progress, stability and quality of life. While this issue still needs more research, it’s possible that the combination of low-dose MDMA therapy and intensive counseling could make treatment more effective. This illicit substance might actually represent a breakthrough in curing a crippling and historically difficult condition to treat.

It May Help People With Autism

In early 2013, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and the DEA approved a study that used low-dose MDMA therapy to treat social anxiety in 12 autistic adults. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies coordinated the cooperative study with researchers from the UCLA Medical Center and Stanford University and began testing in 2014. The study concluded in 2016, and while researchers are still analyzing the results, they hope to show that MDMA will lessen social anxiety in people with autism by increasing empathy and the ability to regulate their emotions.

It Shows Promise For Couples Therapy

The beneficial effects of entactogen drugs – those that produce emotional openness – have been so profound that therapists around the world have used low doses of MDMA in couples therapy since the 1970s. Many couples found it very effective for working through rocky relationships, but the practice subsided in the United States when the DEA relegated MDMA to “street drug” status in the 1980s. However, a 2015 study from the University of Chicago on recreational MDMA users showed that the drug made them more social, more open and more willing to discuss positive and negative emotions.

Researchers hope that MDMA’s entactogenic effect – which makes it easier for people to say what they mean without embarrassment and for their partners to receive this information positively – can be used in clinical settings for new therapy methods. Future studies and controlled clinical trials of MDMA-assisted therapy on couples in crisis may open a new door to saving relationships, marriages and families.

While unregulated, illicit use of MDMA is dangerous, this research reveals exciting advancements in the realm of psychology. Researchers have discovered that MDMA does not permanently damage the brain and in controlled settings, it can even help patients overcome PTSD. Scientists are also exploring how it can help people with autism interpret social cues and manage anxiety and help couples work through conflict and communication issues. Research may bring this “party” drug into mainstream medicine where it has the potential to help millions of people.