Curiouser and curiouser: Could ecstasy actually heal brains as well as minds?
For 30 years we have had a systematic attack on the safety of ecstasy [MDMA]. This has been fueled by a desire by governments, lobbyists and some scientists to justify the illegal status of this drug which in the UK is at the very highest level – Class A. This puts it alongside drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin which by all scientific assessments are much more harmful [Nutt King and Phillips 2010].
Much of the so called scientific evidence that has been used to justify MDMA as being harmful is flawed, some just simply wrong as they used the wrong drug [Ricaurte et al 2002] and most findings are exaggerated. For example, a well reported recent study that claimed to provide proof that MDMA impaired memory in fact found a minimal effect in only one memory measure that was of no clinical significance. This was taken as proof that MDMA damaged the brain despite the fact that on some other measures of brain function, the MDMA-using group performed better than the controls [Schilt et al 2007].
It appears there is an assumption that MDMA will damage human brains because in studies in some animal species [rats and monkeys] it can lead to damage to the serotonin nerve cells. These effects are most pronounced at high doses and are not seen when human equivalent doses are used [Fantegrossi et al 2004]. But still the concern is there, at least in the mind of the Home Sec Jaqui Smith when she announced that MDMA would remain Class A against the recommendations of the ACMD. She said that as long as there were “public concerns” about the risks of ecstasy on the brain she would not be moved, even though these concerns were largely manufactured by the media and magnified by bad science on ecstasy [Forsyth 2001].
However you might feel that as all drugs may be harmful then ecstasy could surely only be harmful also? Well maybe not. We should remember that MDMA was developed as a therapeutic tool for psychotherapy and its successful role here was severely curtailed when the drug was made illegal. Thirty years on, MDMA has only recently been reintroduced into clinical trials with great success in one study in resistant PTSD [Mithoefer et al 2010].
But what about the rats – does it still cause brain damage there? A new paper shows an intriguing effect and one, which many will find paradoxical: MDMA improved recovery from brain injury rather than worsening it [Edut et al 2011]. This paper has not apparently received any media attention so far which I why I felt compelled to do what I could to make it more widely known.
However the results are not so paradoxical if one remembers that the potential utility of such stimulant drugs to aid recovery from brain trauma was first reported over 30 years ago for amfetamine [see Gladstone and Black 2000]. I have made efforts to get stimulant drugs tested in clinical trials for the brain injured in the UK but always their controlled status makes using them difficult. Doctors are frightened, ethics committees worried, special licenses are required and are expensive and patients and relatives concerned (if it's classified then it must be surely be dangerous?). For these reasons, we need to work to minimise the damage that legal controls on drugs have to impede research. The recent banning of mephedrone and naphyrone is likely to significantly limit new drug discovery in the area of antidepressants and anti-addiction agents [Nutt 2010, Nutt 2011].
Lets hope that this intriguing new finding of the potential therapeutic benefit of MDMA as a brain repair agent is taken up by the medical and scientific communities working in the fields of stroke and brain trauma. Some encouragement from the media could help this process.
Edut S, Rubovitch V, Schreiber S, Pick CG (2011) The intriguing effects of ecstasy (MDMA) on cognitive function in mice subjected to a minimal traumatic brain injury (mTBI) Psychopharmacology 214, Number 4214, 877-889, DOI: 10.1007/s00213-010-2098-y
Fantegrossi WE, Woolverton WL, Kilbourn M et al. (2004) Behavioral and neurochemical consequences of long-term intravenous self-administration of MDMA and its enantiomers by rhesus monkeys. Neuropsychopharmacology 29(7): 1270–81.
Forsyth A Distorted? a quantitative exploration of drug fatality reports in the popular press International Journal of Drug Policy 12 (2001) 435–453
Gladstone DJ, Black SE. Enhancing recovery after stroke with noradrenergic pharmacotherapy: a new frontier? Can J Neurol Sci. 2000 May;27(2):97-105
Mithoefer et al (2010) The safety and efficacy of _3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamineassisted psychotherapy in subjects with chronic, treatment-resistant posttraumatic stress disorder: the first randomized controlled pilot study. Journal of Psychopharmacology. July 2010.
Nutt 2011 Perverse effects of the precautionary principle: how banning mephedrone has unexpected implications for pharmaceutical discovery Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology Editorial – in press
Nutt DJKing LA Phillips LD (2010) Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysisLancet 376: 155866
Ricaurte GA, Yuan J, Hatzidimitriou G et al. (2002) Severe dopaminergic neurotoxicity in primates after a common recreational dose regimen of MDMA (“ecstasy”). Science 297: 2260–3. Retraction printed in: Science (2003) 301: 1479.
Schilt T, Maartje ML de Win, Koeter M et al. (2007) Cognition in novice ecstasy users with minimal exposure to other drugs. Archives of General Psychiatry 64: 728–36.