Can MDMA Help Social Anxiety?

May 28th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Researchers in California are hopeful that the controlled use of MDMA in autistic adults can help mitigate symptoms of social anxiety, while further probing the potential medical benefits of the taboo drug. 

They say that in addition to reducing some social anxieties in autistic adults, MDMA, sometimes called the pure form of Ecstacy, could help increase social adaptability thanks to its tendency to engender empathy, feelings of euphoria, and heighten users' perception of social cues.

Moreover, MDMA's positive effects on a person's perception of themselves and the surrounding world are long-lasting, and there are only rare cases of the non-life threatening adverse effects in clinical MDMA trials, according to researchers. 

The proposed study, laid out in the journal Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, doesn't paint itself as a cure for autism. Rather, scientists say that exploring treatments for social anxiety in autistic adults is imperative since, left untreated, it can hamper individuals' ability to be fully functional in day-to-day life, and because traditional anxiety medication often does not work as well in people with autism. 

"We're not looking to affect any of the course or traits of autism," Alicia Danforth, a researcher from the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, told the New York Daily News. "We're looking to help individuals who are sometimes held back from living life to the fullest." 

Though the study was approved by the Food and Drug Administration over a year ago, a recent Reddit post drew widespread attention and re-ignited public interest. A pilot study began after FDA approval, but researchers are still looking for participants who must meet criteria like some college education and being older than 21. According to the Daily News, the study consists of a few different stages through which changes in subjects can be recorded for long-term effects. First, eligible participants are made to go through prep sessions that prepare them for altered states of consciousness. Then come the actual MDMA sessions, when some subjects are given the real thing, and a smaller control group is dosed with placebos––all under the close watch of scientists and therapists. Researchers note their patients' thoughts and interactions, then invite them back after six months for "integrative therapy," which tracks progress and concerns since the initial dosage. Seven subjects have undergone the treatment so far, which is conducted jointly by Biomedical Research Institute and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).

The sudden attention to the ongoing, year-old study comes as MDMA, along with other typically recreational drugs, are experiencing a sort of pharmacological renaissance in the medical community––or at the very least, a retreating from the fringes. What's perhaps surprising, though, is that to an encouraging degree, research has pointed to the medical and psychological benefits of MDMA for a number of maladies, from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to Parkinson's disease.

MDMA is in the news a lot lately.

Despite being banned by the federal government since the 1980s, MDMA is gaining traction as a treatment for a number of psychological issues, and has shown promise in clinical settings so far. "MDMA," Rick Doblin, executive director of MAPS, told the SFGate, "is the most inherently healing of the psychedelic drugs." For that reason, some are hopeful that within a decade, MDMA could be federally reclassified from a Schedule 1 substance––with no medical potential––to a drug that could be prescribed to, say, PTSD victims for use with trained psychotherapists. 

To some, the wheels are already turning towards that end. Last week, a team of therapists in Marin County, Calif., obtained permission to use MDMA to study its effects on reducing severe anxiety among terminally-ill patients. Rather than the calming or sedating characteristics of traditional anxiety medication, MDMA has the potential to facilitate a psychological journey of sorts to help patients come to terms with their fate, especially when guided by trained therapists. 

One of the therapists running the study, Dr. Philip Wolfson of San Anselmo, received approval from the FDA earlier this year, and also has a license from the Drug Enforcement Administration to give otherwise-illegal drugs to patients, the SFGate reports.

Quotes obtained by the SFGate from federal officials show that once-stodgy agencies could be softening up to the drug's potentials.

"If a drug works for a disabling condition and can be labeled to be used in a safe way in that population," said FDA spokeswoman Sandy Walsh, "then we think we have an obligation to evaluate the data and do what the data support, such as allow a trial to proceed," she said of approving the study.

Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, went further. "It's a really interesting and a very powerful new approach," he told the Gate. "It's not just taking MDMA. It's taking it in the context of a treatment that involves improved insight and increased skills and using this in the broader context of psychotherapy."  

​The study, for which therapists are currently recruiting, will take place over the next year in a facility with a view of Mount Tamalpais. It has funding from MAPS, which has a $20 million plan to get FDA approval for MDMA as a prescription medicine in certain cases by 2021.