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Very little is really known about Autism and it’s not for lack of trying. Researchers and medical professionals have been working for decades to pinpoint the causes to find a cure. That work has been defined by a consistent battle known as nature vs nurture and has given rise to theories that suggest everything from vaccines to neglectful parents as the cause. Many of these attempts to treat Autism have fallen short. So it’s understandable the parents and patients alike would be skeptical of claims that MDMA, a substance known as ‘a party drug’ could treat this elusive condition.

The hope for this treatment comes from a number of studies conducted with the use of MDMA; one of which made the use of fMRI imaging and a facial recognition test known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET) often used to test the recognition of emotions in people with Autism.

The test works by showing participants images of human eyes with differing expressions and asks them to gauge whether the expressions convey a positive or negative emotion.

Researchers found that MDMA increased activity in the part of the brain which is responsible for positive and rewarding feelings known as the ventral striatum. They also found that it suppresses the negative responses that are derived from the part of the brain known as the amygdala.

The reason these findings are so important is that those with Autism usually exhibit inhibited social behaviors which can be the result of social anxiety. It’s also important to note that those with Autism are considered to be on a ‘spectrum’ meaning the effects and severity may differ depending on the person.

MDMA and Autistm 3 of 3 MDMA could help treat the social anxiety that haunts those with autism
(Photo by Travis Dove for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Even so, researchers believe that the increased positive responses and suppressed instinct for fight or flight shows some promise for MDMA as a treatment. However, the results of this and other studies remain problematic. Similar research published in the journal Psychopharmacology in 2012 also made use of the method known as RMET (though it didn’t produce fMRI images of the brain).

As might be expected, MDMA helped participants to correctly identify positive emotions in the eyes presented in both studies. Unfortunately, positivity was all they could identify, even when it wasn’t present. Volunteers routinely attributed neutral or even positive feelings to those who displayed negative emotions to the extent that they couldn’t recognize those which were potentially threatening.

In other words, MDMA makes you happy – really happy – but it doesn’t help you to process much else and that’s not surprising when considering that recreational users opt for this substance to induce a free-love sense of euphoria and positive vibes at raves.

This side of MDMA is often attributed to the increased levels of oxytocin the substance activates in the brain, yet another reason some believe this substance might be an effective treatment. While low oxytocin levels are not the cause of Autism, the effects of MDMA have proven to be far more complex than simple administrations of oxytocin and also more effective.

But as with any miracle drug claims, MDMA has had its critics. Among them are the Autism Science Foundation (ASF), a non-profit research firm and charity, which opposed a 2015 study from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) which caught headlines when it claimed that MDMA could be an effective treatment.

MDMA and Autistm 2 of 3 MDMA could help treat the social anxiety that haunts those with autism
Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), commonly referred to as ecstasy, aS (Photo by NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)

“One important point that the authors of this publication completely failed to mention is the potent neurotoxicity of MDMA.” ASF wrote in their response, “ This scientific fact is in stark contrast to the image the authors portray of it being a benign substance which opens the mind and promotes closeness.

They point to animal-based studies which have shown that long-term use of MDMA could lead to decreases in serotonin levels. They also point to cases in which increased MDMA use has led to issues with mental health that certainly should not be ignored.

But that criticism also doesn’t take into account the key findings of the study. What MAPS researchers found that was most significant is the low doses required to create lasting effects.

“As in the case with classic hallucinogens and other psychedelic drugs, MDMA catalyzes shifts toward openness and introspection that do not require the ongoing administration to achieve lasting benefits.” The study states.

When compared to other medications, many of which require daily administration, MDMA proves to be a far better alternative giving patients months’ worth of lasting effects before another treatment. As with their other MDMA studies, MAPS also emphasize the importance of administering MDMA in conjunction with professional therapy. Of course, it can’t be said that psychedelics come with no adverse effects at all – but it’s important to remember that before it was banned in 1985, MDMA was always meant as a treatment, not for the dance floor.

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