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Drugs Live: Science or Circus

W.T.

Who’d have thought that not only would the 21st Century bring about the completion of the human genome project, the discovery of the Higgs-Boson, but also people gurning their faces off live on television. “Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial” was the controversial, two-part programme that aired on Channel 4 last week.

The programme was led by Professor David Nutt and Professor Val Curran in an attempt to promote the possible therapeutic effects of MDMA. The televised study involved the safe administration of 83mg of MDMA or a placebo to healthy volunteers who were scanned using fMRI machines. It was the first experimental study of its kind, allowing researchers, and TV watchers, to see how the brain reacts to this popular drug.

Unfortunately, the message may have been muddled by the sensational nature of the show. The programme shifted quickly between a sterile hospital setting and an excitable studio audience; there was certainly a hint of a “game-show” about this educational endeavour. And the constant twitter feeds flashing across the screen, which ranged from advertisements for the sale of MDMA to commendations of the study, did nothing to alleviate the gimmicky feel.

Sunni Saddington, a first year psychology student at Sussex, offered his views on the programme: “I don’t think it’s helpful that a scientific study on MDMA inspires people to tweet about being off their faces at the weekend”.

The studio was dimly lit with colourful background lights and electronic music feeding your senses. If this research was for the purpose of treating PTSD or aiding counselling in clinical scenarios, why sell the experiment with the illegal elements of MDMA’s reputation? Why not make it as legitimately scientific as possible?

Clearly the Channel 4 producers had their way with it. It will be interesting to see whether this relationship between cutting edge science and glossy television blossoms into a loving marriage or dies a sorry, one-night-stand death.

Professor Michael Morgan, of Sussex, studies the long-term neurological effects of MDMA. “I have no objection to the study in question. In fact I welcome all well-designed and conducted research on ecstasy. But presenting it on television before peer review and publication, as part of a much publicised programme, which includes an inevitably polarized live debate between experts, presenting sound-bite arguments for and against its therapeutic potential, runs the risk of over-simplifying the issues and possibly even glamorising the drug”. Morgan was the first to publish evidence that regular ecstasy use is linked with significant deficits in verbal memory, an issue which often worries users. But Val Curran would certainly disagree with that: “the effects on memory are temporary and tiny”. How’s that for a sound-bite Professor Morgan?

For its many failings, however, “Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial” brought some undeniably positive outcomes. Many watching across the country will have feared MDMA, perhaps unnecessarily, and the show has certainly raised awareness of its potential benefits and arguably minimal harms. More importantly, the country has erupted in discussion about ecstasy, and this can only be a good thing.

So what about the actual science underlying the experiment? During depression Nutt claims the “default mode network”, which is responsible for self-referential thoughts, becomes “over-connected”. MDMA, which acts mainly by blocking the reuptake of serotonin, creates a dampening effect on the “default mode network”, which may promote a positive mind set. Interestingly, this same effect has been seen with psilocybin, the active component in magic mushrooms.

Curran was interested in the drug’s possible ability to promote interpersonal trust. She saw possibilities for MDMA in the treatment of PTSD and depression, through the helpful effects it might have during counselling. Quotes like “you see everything that’s good and wonderful about a person”, from an ordained and wide-eyed priest, can only reinforce this potential benefit for counselling.

Morgan agrees with these possibilities: “since MDMA is clearly a potent psychoactive serotonergic drug, I believe it may well have some therapeutic potential”. Perhaps “Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial” has got the ball rolling for something very special. Unfortunately for the Channel 4 experiment, conducting research on television may have undermined the study’s motives and purpose.

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