An experiment on mice shows that 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, may rewire the brain to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Recovery from PTSD would require that the brain is still malleable to accommodate the so-called critical periods. This is when the brain can still learn social behaviors. During a critical period, the brain should feel good when adapting to a new social behavior.

The Window Of Critical Period

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University did a study on mice to determine the reopening of the critical period. The experiment called conditioned place preference aimed to condition the mice into associating a location with a thing.

The mice were put with a certain bedding together with several other mice for 24 hours. They then transferred the mice individually to a different bedding in another enclosure.

Eventually, the mice started associating a particular bedding with isolation or companionship.

What the researchers found is that the critical period heightened around the adolescent period and then declined through adulthood. The adolescent stage is when the mice felt that being sociable is a rewarding behavior.

"It's why people gather around the water cooler," said Gül Dölen, an assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience and Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University. "This suggests that we've reopened a critical period in mice, giving them the ability to learn social reward behaviors at a time when they are less inclined to engage in these behaviors."

Oxytocin And Learning Social Behavior

Dölen's team gave the mature mice MDMA and waited 48 hours for the drug to be washed out of their system. They observed how the mice would behave toward the other mice in the enclosure following the MDMA treatment.

Most of the animals interacted with each other the same way as the younger mice did. This social behavior lasted for at least two weeks after giving the MDMA. The mice who were given saline injections did not show the same kind of behavior.

The researchers also found that MDMA triggered the oxytocin, or the so-called love hormone. Oxytocin is responsible for encoding learning and memory, which gradually diminishes as an individual matures.

Dölen said the reopening of the critical window may have positive effects in treating psychiatric illnesses. The team proposed that MDMA can help treat PTSD patients by strengthening the psychotherapist-patient relationship.

"In disease states, closure of critical periods limits the ability of the brain to adapt even when optimal conditions are restored," the authors reported in the study published in the journal Nature.

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