MDMA Investigated as Treatment for Social Anxiety in Autistic Adults

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Alongside helping ravers stay on the dance floor until 6am, MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy pills, can increase self-confidence, encourage bonding with others, enhance mood and reduce awkwardness when in the company of strangers. Considering autistic individuals frequently suffer from social anxiety, this list of effects makes the illegal substance seem worthy of investigation as a potential treatment.

And that’s exactly what researchers in the U.S. are currently doing in an ongoing clinical trial, marking the first study to examine the therapeutic potential of the drug in adults with autism. Although we don’t know the outcome yet, scientists have now published a review that explores the justification for investigating this substance and outlines the study proposal. You can find it in the journal Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry.

It may have rightfully earned its reputation as a party drug over the years, but MDMA holds the potential to be much more than an accompaniment to glow sticks. Early research has suggested that the drug, colloquially known as “Molly” or “Mandy,” could be useful in the treatment of a plethora of conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicidality and the psychological distress of terminal illness.

Most of these benefits are the result of the drug’s effects on cognition and social interaction. For example, it’s reported to increase a person’s responsiveness to emotions, bring about a positive mood, boost openness and enhance empathy and compassion both for others and for the self. But despite these positive effects on the mind, and the fact it’s considered safe and non-addictive in small doses, research into its therapeutic potential has been seriously hindered since it was classed as a Schedule 1 substance by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) back in the ‘80s.

But there seems to be renewed interest in the medical use of not only MDMA but other highly restricted psychedelic drugs, and many scientists are calling for reclassification of some of these substances so that clinical research can be carried out. For example, the current study investigating the use of MDMA to reduce social anxiety in autistic adults was justified not only because of the consistent reports about the positive effects of the drug on social behavior, but also because there aren’t many other effective treatment options in existence.

 The FDA-approved pilot study began last year and currently involves just 12 autistic adults, although further participants are still being enrolled, NY Daily News reports. Following preparatory therapy sessions, eight of the participants will be administered a controlled dose of MDMA during two further therapy sessions, and four will be given a placebo. Over the next six months, progress among the participants will be monitored before the placebo group are given the opportunity to trial MDMA.

Ultimately, the researchers behind the trial hope to determine whether MDMA could be useful in improving the relationship between the individual and their therapist and reducing fear of social interactions with others. If the results are positive, hopefully the research will spur policymakers to talk about reclassification so that the drug’s therapeutic potential can be realized. 

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