The terms empathogen [em-path-uh-jen] and entactogen are used to describe a class of psychoactive drugs that produce distinctive emotional and social effects similar to those of MDMA (‘Ecstasy’) characterized by increased empathy (the ability to understand and share the feelings of another). Putative members of this class include 2C-B, 2C-I, MDMA, MDA, MDEA, MBDB, 2C-T-7, and 2C-T-2, among others.

The chemical structure of many entactogens contains a substituted amphetamine core, and most belong to the phenethylamine class of psychoactive drugs, although several (AET and AMT) are tryptamines. When referring to MDMA and its counterparts, the term ‘MDxx’ is often used with the exception of MDPV.

Entactogens are sometimes incorrectly referred to as major hallucinogens or stimulants, which is often thought to be incorrect although their effects are often somewhat similar. The term ’empathogen’ was coined in 1983 by American psychologist Ralph Metzner to denote chemical agents inducing feelings of empathy.

‘Entactogen’ was coined by American pharmacologist David E. Nichols as an alternative, attempting to avoid the potential for improper association of the latter with negative connotations related to the Greek root ‘pathos’ (suffering); Nichols also thought the word was limiting, and did not cover other therapeutic uses for the drugs that go beyond instilling feelings of empathy. The word ‘entactogen’ is derived from the roots ‘en’ (Greek: ‘within’), ‘tactus’ (Latin: ‘touch’), and ‘gen’ (Greek: ‘produce’). Neither term is dominant in usage, and, despite their difference in connotation, they are essentially interchangeable, as they refer to precisely the same chemicals.

These drugs appear to produce a different spectrum of psychological effects from major stimulants such as methamphetamine and amphetamine or from major psychedelic drugs such as LSD or psilocybin. As implied by the category names, users of entactogens say the drugs often produce feelings of empathy, love, and emotional closeness to others. Which is not to say LSD or psilocybin are incapable of producing such responses, but rather they are not so specifically characterized by these qualities. However, there have been only very preliminary comparisons of these different drugs in humans in properly-controlled laboratory studies.

If MDMA is taken as a representative entactogen, the pharmacological mechanisms of this class—increased extracellular dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine—closely resemble those of methamphetamine. In a study of rodents, MDMA was recently shown to induce release of oxytocin, a hormone and neurotransmitter involved in social bonding. This may contribute to the emotional effects of MDMA. However, many other serotonergic drugs also increase oxytocin without producing the unusual effects of MDMA.


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