Could Ecstasy Be a Useful Therapy in Autism?


MDMA, or ecstasy, is widely used as a recreational drug and is considered one of the four most widely used illicit drugs in the US along with cocaine, heroin, and cannabis. But did you know that the drug was initially synthesized in 1912 by a Merck chemist who was interested in developing a medication for a completely different purpose: abnormal bleeding? Scientists are resuming studies in hopes that ecstasy will be useful medicinally in conditions such as autism, schizophrenia, or anti-social personality disorder.

MDMA Promotes Friendliness and Playfulness

Chemically, MDMA is known as 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine. It can induce euphoria, a sense of intimacy with others, and diminished anxiety and depression. These “empathogenic effects” suggest that the drug might be useful in helping patients who struggle to feel connected with others.

Read: Ecstasy May Help PTSD Treatment

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. MDMA increases and prolongs the serotonin signal, causing excessive release of the chemical from the neuron.

Dr. Gillinder Bedi of the University of Chicago studied the effects of MDMA on 21 healthy volunteers who were regular ecstasy users. They were randomized to receive either MDMA (.75, 1.5 mg/kg), methamphetamine (20 mg), or a placebo over the course of four sessions.


“We found that MDMA produced friendliness, playfulness, and loving feelings, even when it was administered to people in a laboratory with little social contact,” said Dr. Bedi. “We also found that MDMA reduced volunteers’ capacity to recognize facial expressions of fear in other people, an effect that may be involved in the increased sociability said to be produced by MDMA.”

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The authors stress that further research is certainly necessary in controlled settings before MDMA could be considered for use as a psychotherapy treatment. In addition to the positive empathogenic effects, the dug can also produce confusion, sleep problems, and drug cravings. Chronic users of MDMA perform more poorly than nonusers on certain types of cognitive or memory tasks, stress experts from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The drug can also increase the heart rate and blood pressure, presenting a particularly concerning risk for those with circulatory problems or heart disease.

MDMA may also “distort one’s perception of others rather than producing true empathy,” warns Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry where the study was published. “Thus, MDMA may cause problems if it leads to people to misinterpret the emotional state and perhaps the intentions of others.”

Journal Reference:
Gillinder Bedi, David Hyman, Harriet de Wit. Is Ecstasy an 'Empathogen'? Effects of ±3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine on Prosocial Feelings and Identification of Emotional States in Others. Biological Psychiatry, 2010; 68 (12): 1134 DOI:10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.08.003