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Drugs Live: the facts behind the programme


4th October 2012

Last week we presented the first results of our new study on MDMA - ecstasy - and brain function over two live Channel 4 programmes. We hope you saw it! It was generally very well received as being a bold attempt to show the neuroscience behind a popular drug that might have therapeutic potential. It also introduced scientific concepts such as fMRI, double-blind trials and placebo control to a general audience.

There have been a few criticisms of the programme, some fair, some less so. One tweeter highlighted the absence of statistical significance on the graphics. We sympathise with this request, and had included them (and error bars) on the graphs we provided, but for clarity Channel 4 took them off (because explaining statistical significance is difficult to a general audience). However we can say that all the reported findings for subjective psychological effects were at a significance level of p<0.001.

It has also been claimed that our study was not as original as claimed, and was merely a TV gimmick that trivialised and potentially glamourised MDMA use

We refute this unfounded assertion. The claim was that our research is not important because there are 60 or more papers using brain imaging to explore the effects of MDMA. That claim is misleading because our study was very different. Of course there has indeed been a history of research on this drug, and as with all scientific endeavour we were building on the findings of others. It would be great to have a TV programme just to consider the breadth of existing evidence in detail. However, the research we presented in Drugs Live was novel.

We conducted an experiment where we scanned each participant’s brain twice, once after they had been given a dose of pure MDMA, and once when they had been given a placebo. The experiment was ‘blinded’, meaning that neither the researchers nor the participants knew which was being given on each occasion. All but a handful of the other 60 or so studies, however important they may be, did not involve an experiment looking at the brains of people after they had been given MDMA. They were brain scanning studies, but they did not give anyone MDMA or scan anyone whilst they were undergoing the effects of the drug. Mostly they compared the brains of long-term ecstasy users with the brains of non-users, to see if there were differences.

These studies are useful for finding out some things about the chronic effects of the drug, but they have some limitations that our experiment avoids. With our study, we can be more certain that the results we see are caused by MDMA, because we gave the MDMA under controlled conditions. In most of the other studies, it is hard to tell which differences are caused by MDMA use, and which are caused by other drugs that the users also take, elements of the clubbing lifestyle, or other things mixed in with their ecstasy. Some of the brain differences found might be connected to the reasons why that individual used lots of MDMA in the first place, rather than being a result of their MDMA use.

So how was our Channel 4 funded study unique? We had 25 participants which makes it the largest experimental brain imaging study of acute MDMA ever conducted. It also was much more comprehensive than the very few comparable studies, with many distinctive features, each of which explored specific aspects of the neuroscience of MDMA including psychological measures exploring its effects on the following tasks:

  • Pro-social psychological processes
  • self-referential memory encoding
  • a trust task (investment)
  • personal memory recall - both positive and negative memories
  • emotional memory and cognitions (tested on day 3)

In addition, we conducted studies on the effects of MDMA using MRI measures of brain activity that to our knowledge have never before been reported for MDMA:

  • arterial spin labelling measures of brain blood flow
  • functional connectivity - particularly in the default mode network

We also measured fMRI activity during the psychological tasks.

Although Drugs Live was based on preliminary results from our study, we couldn't possibly present all aspects of the research in the programme. However all will, in time, be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. We predict 5-6 major papers reporting findings from this single study.

The main purpose of the programme was to increase public understanding of brain research techniques and methods, and of how initially scientists go about assessing the potential properties of MDMA which might make it an aid in psychological therapies. We also wanted to convey harm reduction advice to recreational users of the drug. We wanted to promote scientific research, NOT the use of MDMA and are confident that this aim was achieved.

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