This Dangerous Drug Is Being Used To Treat A Common Characteristic Of Autism

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MDMA, an ingredient found in street drugs Ecstasy and Molly, has recently been touted as a potential treatment for social anxiety found in young adults with ASD.

An illegal drug used to help alleviate symptoms of autism — doesn’t that seem dangerous? How effective is the drug, and how many studies have even been done? Let’s look beyond the shock factor and break it down.

What IS MDMA?

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MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is part stimulant, part psychedelic. It’s a drug that promotes feelings of well-being (AKA a “high”), stimulation, and can distort time and sensory perceptions. It’s a synthesized drug, and does not occur in nature. It’s found in the illegal substances Ecstasy (or X) and Molly. Molly is known as the “pure” form of Ecstasy, and many people assume that the “purity” makes it safe. This is not the case, as both Ecstacy and Molly are often taken in incredible amounts and are contaminated with other drugs like ephedrine (a stimulant), dextromethorphan (a cough suppressant), ketamine, caffeine, cocaine, methamphetamine, and synthetic cathinones (the psychoactive ingredients in “bath salts”). In fact, in one previous sampling, only 20% of Ecstasy pills even had MDMA in them.

Why Is It Illegal?

MDMA has been a Schedule 1 substance (a drug with high abuse potential and no recognized medicinal use) since the mid 1980s. However, according to Progress and Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, to date, over 1133 people have been given the drug for “research purposes.” Starting in the 1970s, the (still legal) drug was administered to therapists’ patients as an addition to therapy.

Researchers noted the positive effects of MDMA, like its ability to allow people to talk openly about themselves and relationships, while decreasing anxiety and fear. However, concerns about neurotoxicity (and, according to the proposed study, “errors in reporting”) pushed the drug into the most restrictive category of illegal drugs in 1985.

Negative health effects of MDMA include: increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tension, involuntary teeth clenching, nausea, blurred vision, faintness, chills or sweating. In high doses, it can interfere with a body’s temperature regulation, leading to skyrocketing internal temps that can cause liver, kidney, or cardiovascular system failure, or even death. It can also interfere with its own metabolism, which can lead to harmful build-up levels if it is taken repeatedly in a short time frame.

The Study:

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This research is being conducted jointly by the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. The proposed study is FDA-compliant, IRB-approved, and will employ a placebo-controlled, double-blind methodology. It aims to assess the effect of pure MDMA on individuals with high-functioning autism who experience social anxiety, since MDMA has been shown to boost mood and confidence, increase bonding, and lessen fear of other people.

The study began over a year ago, and the goal was to find 12 participants with autism over the age of 21 who have completed two years of college. According to the New York Daily News, they currently only have 7 participants and are still recruiting.

Participants have multiple therapy sessions to help them prepare for the drug. Then, half are given MDMA and the others are given a placebo. They are only given the drug twice over a period of six months, with integrative therapy throughout. After six months, the participants who have been taking the placebo can decide if they want to try taking MDMA. Researchers are hoping the small and infrequent doses prove beneficial for those on the spectrum, so they no longer have to take anti-anxiety drugs that require daily use.

Learn more about the rigorous criteria for the study here.

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Fig. 1 via Science Direct


***MDMA is NOT a self-treatment recommendation for autism. Consult your doctor.


What do you think about this study? Do you have autism and also experience social anxiety? Or do you have a family member on the spectrum who experiences social anxiety? Let us know in the comments!

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C. Kramer is back in the Mitten State after a brief residency in the Sunshine State. She has an adorable dog-child, and enjoys reading, writing, going to the theatre, and finding pins on Pinterest.