MDMA is thought to encourage a positive mood among strangers and reduce the fear of interacting with people – qualities that could ease social anxiety. Now, for the first time, a group of Los Angeles researchers will test the drug's impact on people diagnosed with autism.
Social anxiety is a common problem for autistic adults, yet those who suffer from it have few options. Furthermore, adults with autism are known to respond poorly to common anti-anxiety treatments.
Lead researcher Alicia Danforth stressed that scientists are not trying to "cure" autism, but instead find data about the effect MDMA – a “heart-opening” drug – has on social anxiety.
"That's really hard for people to wrap their minds around. It's not another quack treatment for autism," she told the New York Daily News.
The MDMA used in the study is safer than that found in street versions of ecstasy and so-called Molly because it is pure, Danforth said. The street drugs are usually contaminated — with only 20% of ecstasy pills even containing MDMA — and can be harmful, she said.
Researchers are looking for 12 autistic adults over the age of 21 who also meet "rigorous criteria," including two years of college. So far, they have found seven. Over a period of months, eight of the subjects will be administered MDMA, while the remaining four will receive placebos.
Research into the clinical effects of MDMA goes back decades. Over the last century, scientists have examined its effect on 1,133 people in various studies, according to an article in the journal Progress and Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry.
It has had little negative effect and has even helped people, including those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Danforth said.
Still, MDMA is far from being a prescribed as a treatment for social anxiety, Danforth said. For now, the study looks more at the drug's feasibility and safety.
"We're not looking to affect any of the course or trace of autism," she told the Daily News. "We're looking to help individuals who are sometimes held back from living life to the fullest."