New research shows that MDMA, the chemical compound found in the street drug ecstasy, may help adults with autism cope with the social anxiety often associated with the disorder.
Charles Grob, M.D., and Alicia Danforth, Ph.D., researchers at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, gave either MDMA or a placebo to 12 participants with autism in this small pilot study, during two eight-hour psychotherapy sessions. They used the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale (LSAS) to measure participants’ anxiety levels before the treatment, and one month after the second session. Participants who received the drug showed a 44.1-percent reduction of their social anxiety, compared to a 19.3-percent reduction in the placebo group. Their results were published earlier this month in the peer-reviewed journal Psychopharmacology.\
“What was particularly notable for many of the participants after treatment was their increased self-confidence when interacting in social settings, an endeavor that in the past they had experienced as overwhelming,” Dr. Grob said in a statement. “We hope that our study will help to establish a foundation for future investigations exploring the safety and efficacy of MDMA in the treatment of social anxiety in vulnerable patient populations.”
This study grew out of previous research by Danforth into MDMA experiences of autistic individuals in non-clinical settings. In that survey, 91 percent of participants reported “increased feelings of empathy/connectedness” and 86 percent experienced “ease of communication.”
Though MDMA’s effectiveness in treating other kinds of anxiety has been explored, this was the first study to specifically test the effectiveness of MDMA to treat social anxiety. It was also the first study specifically looking at MDMA-assisted therapy for the autistic population.
“Researchers worked closely with the autistic community to develop many aspects of the research, from the treatment room ambience to the psychotherapeutic approach,” says Brad Burge, Director of Strategic Communications for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who sponsored the study. Burge also clarified that, as in all of MAPS’ research into the drug’s potential therapeutic uses, “the MDMA was not a treatment in and of itself,” but was used in conjunction with mtalk therapy.
MDMA-assisted psychotherapy has shown the greatest promise, and the most progress toward becoming publicly available, as a treatment for PTSD, with the MAPS leading clinical trials and pushing for FDA approval for the treatment. If the next phase goes well, MDMA could be available by prescription as soon as 2021. It’s also been shown to reduce anxiety in people facing death due to terminal illness.
“Just as in our completed trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, this small pilot study showed that MDMA could be used safely and effectively to improve the effectiveness of psychotherapy,” Burge says. “MAPS is very excited about the results of this study, which although small nevertheless highlights the need for additional research into MDMA’s use in the treatment of a variety of mental health conditions.”
The study also provided more evidence for the safety of small doses of MDMA in a therapeutic setting, an element that researchers have been working to demonstrate in all of their studies, to combat the negative associations of MDMA as a party drug. Some participants reported fatigue, headaches and a sensitivity to cold, but there were no serious adverse reactions.
“We hope that the good safety profile and encouraging reduction in social anxiety symptoms will inspire funding for new and larger studies,” said Dr. Danforth. “We are looking forward to sharing what we learned with other researchers and communities committed to improving the quality of care for autistic adults and other populations struggling with social anxiety.”