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Scientists are testing whether MDMA, the active ingredient in Ecstasy, may help treat social anxiety in adults with autism.
Los Angeles researchers want to see if MDMA, a "heart-opening" drug, reduces the fear of interacting with people in the first study to look at MDMA and autistic people, co-investigator Alicia Danforth said.
MDMA has been shown to boost confidence, heighten bonding and increase understanding of social cues, all qualities that could ease social anxiety, researchers said.
Scientists are not trying to "cure" autism but instead find data about MDMA’s effect on social anxiety, she said.
“That’s really hard for people to wrap their minds around. It’s not another quack treatment for autism,” Danforth said.
The study is imperative because few treatment options exist for the condition in adults with autism, who are at a higher risk of having it, said the researchers from the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
Yet traditional medication does not work as effectively for people with autism, Danforth said.
The MDMA used in the study is safer than Ecstasy and Molly because it is pure, Danforth said. The street drugs are usually contaminated, with only 20% of Ecstasy pills even containing MDMA in some samples, and can be harmful, she said.
The pure form has rarely had serious adverse effects in lab studies, Danforth said.
The pilot study, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, began more than a year ago but went viral over Memorial Day weekend thanks to a Reddit post, Danforth said.
To find participants, researchers screened people with autism for "rigorous criteria," including two years of college, to find 12 subjects over the age of 21. They're still recruiting.
Participants then attend several preparatory therapy sessions "to help them get ready and for the shift in consciousness," Danforth said.
The MDMA is given to eight of the subjects in two highly-monitored sessions in a month. Four of the subjects receive placebos.
The participants either listen to music with to become more attuned to their thoughts or interact with researchers.
Six months after the MDMA sessions, subjects come in for "integrative therapy" which goes over the progress they've made or concerns they have.
The four subjects who received placebos can then elect to try taking the MDMA after six months.
So far, seven subjects have been given either MDMA or a placebo in this study.
Over the last century, researchers have examined MDMA's effect on 1133 people in various studies, according to the article in the journal Progress and Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry.
It's had little negative effect and has even helped people, including those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Danforth said.
But MDMA is still far away from being a prescribed as a treatment for social anxiety, Danforth said. Right now, the study looks more at the feasibility and safety of MDMA.
"We're not looking to affect any of the course or traits of autism," she told the Daily News. "We're looking to help individuals who are sometimes held back from living life to the fullest."