Researchers want to find out whether MDMA has the same benefits for autistic adults in a therapeutic setting as it apparently does in recreational use.
A scientist at Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute (LA BioMed) said she has conducted interviews with numerous adults on the autism spectrum who have taken the drug – which is sometimes called Ecstasy or Molly – recreationally and reported a reduction in social anxiety.
Nearly three-quarters of the more than 100 autistic adults surveyed reported feeling “more comfort in social settings” while using the drug and 77 percent found it “easier than usual to talk with others,” said researcher Alicia Danforth, of LA BioMed.
In some cases, she said, these effects lasted for a year or more, although some of these illegally manufactured drugs marketed contain little or no MDMA.
“This new study will give us a chance to determine the actual effects of differing dosages of medication that we know for certain is pure MDMA on adults on the autism spectrum,” Danforth said. “If the results of this research warrant further investigation, data from this study will be used to design additional clinical trials.”
MDMA – or 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine – is a synthetic compound first developed by the Merck pharmaceutical company in 1912 as a possible appetite suppressant, and therapists began studying its use in the 1970s as a tool to reduce moderate depression and anxiety.
But its legal therapeutic use ended in 1985 when MDMA was reclassified as a narcotic after its recreational use became widespread and attracted media attention.
The drug, which is both a stimulant and psychedelic, stimulates the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin from brain and can produce an enhanced sense of pleasure, self-confidence, and energy.
Users also report feelings of peacefulness, acceptance, and empathy.
LA BioMed researchers are initiating a study into the safety and effectiveness of MDMA therapy for autistic adults.
The study is the latest in an expanding program of research into the therapeutic use of MDMA and other psychedelic drugs, including LSD.
Adults on the autism spectrum often face challenges in social adaptability, along with greater anxiety, depression, and victimization than typically developing adults.
Conventional prescription medications that might help other adults are often ineffective in autistic adults, so researchers hope MDMA could open new areas of therapeutic treatments for those patients.
“We have anecdotal evidence that autistic adults who had experimented with MDMA experienced a reduction in anxiety and an increased confidence in their abilities to interact socially,” said Dr. Charles Grob, LA BioMed’s lead researcher for the study.
The team has been impressed with results reported from other MDMA-assisted psychotherapy research conducted by the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), he said.
“We know from other research findings that MDMA can reduce activity in the portion of the brain that communicates the fear that can lead to social anxiety,” Grob said. “Other studies also found MDMA can increase oxytocin, a neuropeptide associated with bonding and social affiliation in humans, which could also be beneficial to adults on the autism spectrum.”
The study, which is being conducted along with Stanford University researchers, will measure the level of oxytocin in the brain to determine whether MDMA increases its secretion and what role, if any, increased levels of the neurohypophysial hormone might have in therapy.
MDMA damages serotonin neurons, which help regulate mood, memory, sleep, and appetite, and research suggests heavy use can cause persistent memory problems.
Users also report feeling confused, depressed, anxious, or paranoid after taking the drug, sometimes for weeks, and MDMA use can also trigger sleep problems afterward.
The drug can also raise the heart rate and blood pressure during use and trigger muscle tension, involuntary teeth-clenching, nausea, and sweating.
The LA BioMed study has approval from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and it will be funded by donations from MAPS.
[Image: Quaker Cuddle Puddle via Flickr user Mike Goren]