Researchers to Test "Ecstasy" on Autistic Adults

In a study approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, California researchers are launching a pilot program to see if MDMA, the recreational drug known as "Ecstasy" will alleviate social anxiety in adults with autism.

In an investigation approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, California researchers are launching a pilot program to see if MDMA, the recreational drug known as “Ecstasy” will alleviate social anxiety in adults with autism.

Reporting in Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, Alicia Danforth, PhD, of Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute in Torrance, CA and colleagues at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in Santa Cruz.

They reason that the drug affects the amygdala in the brain, a region involved in emotional responses, a source of concern in autism. The researchers said that MDMA has been shown to alleviate anxiety and fear and helped people talk openly and honestly about themselves.

The study design calls for dosing 12 subjects (8 will get the drug and 4 will be controls) with from 75 mg to 125 mg of MDMA. All will get 2 treatment sessions.

Among the criteria for participating are that all subjects must be 21 years old, have at least 2 years of college, and have an autism diagnosis.

They will get psychotherapy sessions before the trial, and will get the drug while in a room with soft lighting, comfortable seating, and minimal noise.

They will be videotaped and monitored physically.

Blood will be drawn for analysis and during the sessions they will do a lot things: listen to music, work with art supplies, write in journals, medicate, and engage in “rapport-building interactions with therapists.”

There will be follow-up sessions for 6 months.

The authors note that they are aware the drug has risks. The FDA classified MDMA as a schedule 1 drug in 1986.

Recreational users tend to use way too much of the drug, the authors wrote, causing serious adverse events (including stroke, liver damage, and death) and giving it what they see as an undeserved bad reputation. They believe it has therapeutic promise. The authors say they visited websites and read many anecdotal reports from users in chatrooms like http://wrongplanet.net and www.psychforums.com to judge user experiences and found many of them positive.

MDMA is “a potent releaser of serotonin as well as an inhibitor of presynaptic serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.” It takes about 70 mg to alter mood and cognition and takes about 30 minutes to take effect. Other subacute after effects disappear within 2 weeks.

The authors believe they can use the drug safely and help a population that has limited options and whose condition has been “refractory to conventional treatment.”