A brain scan on ecstasy

Under the supervision of a medical team, New Scientist's Graham Lawton took a dose of MDMA and then lay in an fMRI machine. You know. For science.

Lawton was a participant in a double blind, controlled, clinical study — meaning that he didn't actually know whether he was going to be taking ecstasy or Vitamin C when he went in ... and neither did the scientists who gave him the pill. That's because the researchers want to know whether and what differences show up between the functioning of brain under the influence of MDMA and one that's sober. Not knowing which type of brain they're looking at helps them avoid their own biases, or tendencies to "spot" a difference that doesn't actually exist simply because of what they expect a high brain (or a sober one) to be doing. Only after they've made their observations do the scientists find out which brains were which.

The goal is to document was ecstasy does to the brain. Astoundingly, writes Lawton, nobody has ever done that before. And it matters, because some people think that drugs like ecstasy could be useful in helping people deal with psychological stress disorders. Not that the drugs would cure the disorder, per se, but that ecstasy could help people talk about their bad experiences more easily. Right now, there's not a lot of evidence supporting that idea, beyond some anecdotes. Studies like this help scientists figure out whether the anecdotes are pointing at a useful treatment tool, or just relating some personal experiences.

Read the story (and see a gallery of photos) at New Scientist

Via Jennifer Ouellette


  1. I’ve always wondered how you can do a credible double-blind study on the effects of psychedelics – unless the dose was low enough to have no strong effects, the subject is going to know pretty soon whether they got the real thing or the control.  And the observers will be able to observe things like changes in pupil dilation.

    1. I suppose it boils down to just looking at the fNMRI output rather than listening to the person flip out in the tube as their brain interprets the sounds of the machine as a hard dance beat.

    2. You’d be surprised.  The placebo effect can be surprisingly strong, you don’t need hallucinogens to hallucinate.  And of course, the reverse is true as well.  Have you ever had that trip where the whole time you’re thinking “I don’t really feel anything, maybe those tabs were bunk…” and then in retrospect you realize you were totally spun?

      For someone unfamiliar with a drug’s effects, this is even more likely.

      1. “I don’t really feel anything, maybe those tabs were bunk…”
        I once spent nearly two and a half hours with my friend discussing how crap the acid we took was until we realised we’d spent two and a half hours talking about it. Once we figured out the time we devolved into fits of hysteric laughter and five hours of hilarity ensued.

    3. They must have a tech assistant doing the testing. The person doing the functional analysis wouldn’t know the identity of the subject as the data would probably just be named with a code. The key allowing to link the data with whether or not the person took the drug would be sealed and only revealed once the analysis are complete.

  2. So insane that studies like this haven’t been done already.  Of course, it’s not because of lack of scientific interest, it’s because of the law.  You would think that drug war crusaders would want as much research as possible into the effects of illegal drugs, so they could educate people about the dangers.  But when it comes to research, they do everything they can do block it.

    They don’t do this because they’re afraid MDMA could harm you.  It’s because they’re afraid it could help you.

    1. (see my response to dculberson below before reading, or after)

      It’s because they’re afraid it could help you.

      the prize for a sophomoric viewpoint goes to ….

      look, clearly there’s a large and/or powerful group of people in many societies that are concerned that large numbers of (young) people taking MDMA represent some kind of threat to social order. they are probably deeply misguided, but suggesting that MDMA was made illegal because it could help you is similarly off-base.

      1.  I do not believe that he was saying what you thought.  I think his intent was that, since the drug is already illegal, they do not want research done that might show that it isn’t harmful.  That would result in an awkward situation for the drug warriors.

        1. No, I think Zik Zak was saying exactly what he said. Legal, non-patentable enthogens like MDMA are existential threats to a vast network of multi-billion dollar industries, including the pharmaceutical industry (which sells endless pills for anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders) and the prison-industrial complex.

      2. I think you’re misreading his point here.  

        He isn’t suggesting that the drug is illegal because it may help people, he is suggesting that it hasn’t been studied in greater depth because further studies would reveal that current policy on MDMA is misguided and unnecessary.  

        The drug enforcement establishment don’t want to educate people on real facts about it, the facts aren’t consistent with their narrative and as such, are unwelcome. 

        Bah! beaten to it :)

  3. I find it hard to believe that the placebo effect didn’t kick in regardless of whether they got the MDMA or the vitamin C. I mean, if I knew there was a 50% chance that the pill I just took was Ecstacy, I would be hallucinating all sorts of things.

  4. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith would like to remind everybody that you you can’t compare FMRI from a legal activity with one from an illegal activity. Because one is illegal.

  5. Wow imagine being strapped into the tight confines of an MRI machine when that ZOOM TAKEOFF feeling hits.  No thank you very much.

    1. I do wonder how the effects would differ in a different situation. They did a /bit/ of that here with the good thoughts/bad thoughts comparison, but I’d imagine it’s perfectly possible for differences to occur because of the effects of various situations.

      Kind of hard to do brain scans while someone is up and walking about or in perfect relaxation though.

  6. Do they compensate people for their dental insurance bills afterwards? The only time I ever took e I ground my teeth for 8 hours straight, no matter how hard I tried to stop.

    1. Pop ’em out and put ’em in a glass for the duration?

      Or are you stuck with those nasty old pre-sciency all-natural, rotting-all-day non-removable ones?

    2.  Sounds like your E was cut with something bad. The one time I took it (before I had even heard of it’s effects) I had the most amazingly intimate and trusting conversation with a girlfriend that I had been fighting with beforehand.

    3. If you were grinding for 8 hours your pill was likely highly amphetamine based, speed, meth, ice, etc. Strong MDMA will make you grind your teeth a bit, but not half so bad as strong speed or meth.

  7. ridiculous… it’s like the clinical tests of LSD in the 50s… give the subject a strong dose of a psychodelic, isolate him in a clinical white room in a hospital (subconciouslly associated with sickness and death), forbid the assistants to communicate with the subject (as not to influence the observation) and then “scientifically conclude” that LSD induces panic, paranoia, schizophrenia….
    today’s medicine still doesn’t have the tools to properly observe and assess the effects of psychotropic drugs. sad.

    1. This always bugs me too. 
      The added effect of the environment (music, visuals, interation, others present) would presumably change the output during the scan as well – but I suppose as a “first test” it has to start somewhere.

  8. It’s really amusing to read suggestions that pure MDMA would cause hallucinations at all. In the late 1990’s I had access to pure MDMA and used it on occasion. It’s really quite an amazing high and a sense of optimism and a lack of anxiety would stick with me for months after a single dose. But if you’ve only ever done street ecstasy, you really wouldn’t know how beneficial it can be. The street version is almost always cut with something, which is the cause of bad hangovers, jaw-chewing and interestingly enough, depression. Just like other illegal substances, like Psilocybin, these chemicals can conquer a lot of the mental conditions that ails you without the huge side effects that are caused by selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors on the market today.

    1. This is why i wonder what the effect would be if one could get properly produced and measured doses over the counter like one do with bottled alcohol.

        1.  Sounds interesting. Especially if one consider the apparent positive results Spain has had with their legalization of possession and use.

  9. Aw. His description of wanting to engage in deep heart-to-heart chats with the research assistants administering the cognitive tests afterwards is just adorable.

Comments are closed.