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Ecstasy may soon be a treatment for social anxiety among autistic adults

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Researchers are planning the first pilot study of MDMA-assisted therapy for the treatment of social anxiety in autistic adults.

In a recent review in press in the journal, Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, a team of researchers led by Alicia Danforth, laid out their proposed methods and study rationale for what will be the first assessment of the therapeutic effects of MDMA, the active component of the street drug Ecstasy, for social anxiety in autistic adults. This research is being conducted jointly by the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

Social anxiety is a common problem for autistic adults, especially those that function well enough to be pressured by social norms. Individuals with autism are also known to respond poorly to usual treatments.

“Conventional anti-anxiety medications, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), MAOIs, and benzodiazepines, lack substantial clinical effectiveness in autistic adults,” write the authors. These medications may not work well in this group because of the physiological differences associated with autism. Thus, the researchers are trying to find a new clinical approach to help affected individuals.

Research into the clinical uses of MDMA goes back decades, and it is currently also being investigated as an adjunct treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. MDMA is pharmacologically similar to amphetamine and the hallucinogen, mescaline, however it is considered to be safe and non-addictive in small doses and in controlled settings. MDMA has been illegal in the United States since the 1980s, but prior to this, MDMA was being tested for possible therapeutic effects and was sometimes given as an adjunct to psychotherapy. More recent studies have established safety guidelines that were not previously available for the clinical administration of MDMA.

MDMA is noted for its ability to promote positive mood, help people talk more openly, and increase levels of personal insight. In one survey of users, 72% reported that the drugs made them “more comfortable in social settings,” and 12% further noted that this effect persisted for more than two years. It is hoped that this drug can be administered infrequently in clinical settings to reduce social anxiety directly and to promote the formation of a more productive relationship between an individual and his or her therapist.

The proposed study is FDA-compliant, IRB-approved, and will employ a placebo-controlled, double-blind methodology.