August 4, 2014

In recent years, several studies have shown that certain components in marijuana may be beneficial to individuals on the autism spectrum. Little research has been done on other substances, including Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, also known as Ecstasy, until now.

Dr. Charles Grob, psychiatrist at Harbor-UCLA and investigator at Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute, or LA BioMed, was the first researcher in many years to win a approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Dr. Grob believes that MDMD and hallucinogenics such as psilocybin (the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms) and ayahuasca (a concoction made from a plant vine that causes hallucinations) have the potential to ease symptoms of mental disorders and addictions. He believes that these drugs, which have a tendency to facilitate spiritual awakenings or psychological epiphanies, impact the mind in ways science does not yet fully understand, other than it’s impact on serotonin delivery to the brain. Grob wrote in a 1998 published research paper,

“The hallucinogenic treatment model shows strengths. The ayahuasca religious group in Brazil had very strong psychological health and good behavioral profiles, and many of them struggled with alcohol and drug addiction before joining the group.”

His research started in 1993 with a religious group in Brazil that uses ayahuasca to attain spiritual enlightenment. From 2004 to 2008, he studied the effects on psilocybin on helping terminal cancer patients cope with death. The results of these studies led him to wonder whether these medications could be helpful for the social anxiety that often accompanies autism spectrum disorders.

He says,

“We’re looking for something to facilitate ongoing positive change. You can’t take an autistic person and make them un-autistic, but you can treat overwhelming social anxiety.”

Grob and his research partner, Alicia Danforth, have begun “preparatory psychotherapy” with three autistic patients who have agreed to participate in the MDMA study. Ultimately, they hope to include 12 participants, one-third of whom will receive a placebo. The participants will be tested and observed prior to receiving their small dose of 75 to 125 milligrams of MDMA, when Grob and Danforth will stay with them to monitor their reactions.

At this point, the biggest threat to his research is lack of funding. Researchers first took an interest in hallucinogenic drugs in the late 1800’s, but the field expanded in the 1940’s, when Dr. Albert Hoffman synthesized LSD. As LSD and other drugs became popular during the youth culture of the 1960’s, their dangers became apparent, and the drugs were classified as controlled substances, making it difficult for researchers to obtain samples for ongoing studies.

The benefits of MDMA and similar substances are being explored by Dr. Grob and other researchers who are testing it’s results in treating patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Even with permission to test MDMA, there is a good possibility that Dr. Grob’s study will be halted due to a lack of funds.


About the author 

Laurel Joss

Laurel Joss is a freelance writer with a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education. She worked as an RDI® Program Certified Consultant and has published articles in Autism Spectrum Quarterly and on her blog She is a mother to two children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum.


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