Journal Article

Effect of Psilocybin on Empathy and Moral Decision-Making

Thomas Pokorny, Katrin H Preller, Michael Kometer, Isabel Dziobek and Franz X Vollenweider

in International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology

Published on behalf of International College of Neuropsychopharmacology

Volume 20, issue 9, pages 747-757
ISSN: 1461-1457
Published online June 2017 | e-ISSN: 1469-5111 | DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ijnp/pyx047
Effect of Psilocybin on Empathy and Moral Decision-Making

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  • Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics
  • Neurology
  • Psychiatry
  • Neuroscience

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Abstract

Background

Impaired empathic abilities lead to severe negative social consequences and influence the development and treatment of several psychiatric disorders. Furthermore, empathy has been shown to play a crucial role in moral and prosocial behavior. Although the serotonin system has been implicated in modulating empathy and moral behavior, the relative contribution of the various serotonin receptor subtypes is still unknown.

Methods

We investigated the acute effect of psilocybin (0.215 mg/kg p.o.) in healthy human subjects on different facets of empathy and hypothetical moral decision-making using the multifaceted empathy test (n=32) and the moral dilemma task (n=24).

Results

Psilocybin significantly increased emotional, but not cognitive empathy compared with placebo, and the increase in implicit emotional empathy was significantly associated with psilocybin-induced changed meaning of percepts. In contrast, moral decision-making remained unaffected by psilocybin.

Conclusions

These findings provide first evidence that psilocybin has distinct effects on social cognition by enhancing emotional empathy but not moral behavior. Furthermore, together with previous findings, psilocybin appears to promote emotional empathy presumably via activation of serotonin 2A/1A receptors, suggesting that targeting serotonin 2A/1A receptors has implications for potential treatment of dysfunctional social cognition.

Keywords: empathy; moral decision-making; psilocybin; serotonin; 5-HT2A/1A receptors

Journal Article.  7740 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics ; Neurology ; Psychiatry ; Neuroscience

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