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Can Ecstasy Combat Autism?

A group of scientists believes that autism can be treated with the ultimate club drug. But not everyone is convinced.

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Is Ecstasy the newest weapon to combat autism?

By Dirk Hanson

12/05/11

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A team of scientists at a California non-profit organization just announced a pilot study to determine if Ecstasy might help fight the effects of autism. This isn’t the first time that MAPS, or the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, has researched the psychiatric benefits of MDMA. A 2010 study of twenty Iraq veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder found that a combination of Ecstasy and therapy resulted in an 80-percent success rate, high enough to convince the Food and Drug Administration to greenlight further studies of the drug.

This newest study is part of an ambitious plan by MAPS and its president, Rick Doblin, to make MDMA an FDA-approved prescription medicine. MAPS considers itself a “non-profit pharmaceutical company” that focuses on treating illnesses with psychedelics and medical marijuana. It claims that it’s “the only organization in the world funding clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. For-profit pharmaceutical companies are not interested in developing MDMA into a medicine because the patent for MDMA has expired.”

However, despite it’s effectiveness in treating PTSD, safety questions about Ecstasy still linger—for instance, will long-term use fry the serotonin receptors in your brain? A recent report released by the Archives of General Psychiatry concludes, “MDMA use produces chronic serotonin neurotoxicity in humans. Given the broad role of serotonin in human brain function, the possibility for therapeutic MDMA use, and the widespread recreational popularity of this drug, these results have critical public health implications.”

"We found that MDMA produced friendliness, playfulness, and loving feelings, even when it was administered to people in a laboratory with little social contact.”

But others believe that the dangers of MDMA are overstated, especially when the drug is used in controlled settings. As Fix columnist Maia Szalavitz wrote in a column for TimeHealthland, “short-term use for the treatment of conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder is considered safe enough that the FDA has approved clinical trials... that are generating a great deal of excitement.”

MDMA releases a flood of the brain messengers serotonin and dopamine while increasing blood levels of the hormones oxytocin and prolactin, which promote social bonding. This potent mix diminishes fear and defensiveness and boosts empathy and the desire to connect with others. The drug’s “'empathogenic' effects suggest that MDMA might be useful to enhance the psychotherapy of people who struggle to feel connected to others, as may occur in association with autism, schizophrenia or antisocial personality disorder," said the authors of a landmark study last year in the journal Biological Psychiatry. "We found that MDMA produced friendliness, playfulness, and loving feelings, even when it was administered to people in a laboratory with little social contact.” As MAPS puts it, “the effects of MDMA that increase empathy and enhance communication are precisely the abilities that autism tends to degrade.”

Ecstasy was first used as a therapeutic tool by a dedicated network of psychologists in the '70s and '80s, but MDMA’s  increasing popularity as a club drug lead the Drug Enforcement Administration to ban it in 1985. Doblin launched MAPS a year later to revive psychedelic research. Since then the group has supported over a dozen promising studies of MDMA, LSD and Ibogaine to treat PTSD migraine headaches and addiction, as well as anxiety and depression in cancer patients. It can induce euphoria, a sense of intimacy with others. These “empathogenic effects” suggest that the drug might be useful in helping patients who struggle to feel connected with others.

Whether autisic children will respond to the drug as favorably as war-scarred soldiers remains to be seen, but MAPS isn’t the first group to wonder about Ecstasy's effect on Autism. MDMA primarily affects neurons in the brain that use the neurotransmitter serotonin to communicate with other neurons. The serotonin system plays an important role in regulating mood, aggression, sleep, and sensitivity to pain. In a very early study in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs in 1986, researchers agreed with psychedelic pioneer Stanislav Grof that MDMA might mitigate autism by altering serotonin, and argued for the use of the compound for research purposes: “MDMA does not belong in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, as recommended by the DEA. Furthermore, it probably should not be placed in Schedule II either. To place MDMA in either category would sharply curtail research on this promising drug and its use in the field by practicing psychotherapists and other mental health professionals.”

One intriguing and highly speculative theory has been put forth by prominent neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, author of Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. Ramachandran, quoted at bigthink.com, said that malfunctioning “mirror neurons,” which fire when a person observes other people performing actions, “might be one of the major causes of autism… we all known that Ecstasy enhances empathy. It’s quite possible it is acting through the mirror neuron system. Especially parts that are concerned with emotional empathy. Maybe if you knew what transmitters were involved you can engineer drugs that tap into that.”

MAPS is actively soliciting reports, either positive or negative, of people with Autism Spectrum Disorders who have tried MDMA. If so, contact MAPS Lead Clinical Research Associate Berra Yazar-Klosinski, Ph.D. at berra@maps.org.

 

Dirk Hanson has written extensively about addiction and recovery issues. He is a regular contributor to The Fix, and author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He blogs daily at Addiction Inbox.

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