Thousands of people take ecstasy regularly but we know surprisingly little about the effects of this class A drug on the human brain.
We now know more than we did, thanks to Channel 4, which funded and filmed a scientific study of the “love drug” with a group of 25 “guinea pigs”.
Of course, Channel 4 has an ulterior motive because this was a piece of theatrical entertainment which took place in front of a live studio audience and a mammoth-sized plastic brain that lit up on demand to illustrate how different neural circuits were affected by ecstasy.
Our volunteers, who included actor Keith Allen, novelist Lionel Shriver and a beefy ex-soldier concerned about post-traumatic stress syndrome, took either a 83 milligram dose of pharmaceutical grade MDMA – a pure form of ecstasy – or a harmless vitamin C placebo pill.
The volunteers were not told which type of pill they had taken. Neither were the hands-on scientists, as this was a “double blind” placebo-controlled trial to compare real effects of the drug with any perceived placebo effects.
After swallowing their pills, the volunteers went into a brain scanner and answered psychological questions to test their senses and empathy while under the influence of either the drug or the placebo pill. The scanner was designed to detect any unusual neural activity.
Tom, our first subject and fresh out of the MRI scanner, was in fact the only live element of the actual study. He was sure he was still high on it as he felt euphoric and claimed his eyes looked like dinner plates.
Our second subject, an ordained priest called Hayley, who took the drug some weeks ago, clearly wanted to empathise with the homeless people she has met whose lives have been blighted by drugs. “I’m nervous, but as a Christian I can think about the potential benefits of taking part,” she said.
Afterwards, she said that if it was a placebo she took, it was some placebo. “Despite feeling this euphoria, I feel really disconnected from God,” she said.
The experiments are part of a genuine academic study overseen by Professor Val Curran, a psychologist at University College London, and Professor David Nutt, a psychiatrist at Imperial College London and a former government drugs advisor. Although the study was funded and filmed by Channel 4, it had to take place in an approved medical setting – Hammersmith Hospital in London – with appropriate ethical approval from the hospital and the Home Office.
Professor Nutt, who was sacked from his job for daring to suggest that ecstasy was less dangerous than horse riding, applauded Channel 4 for funding a piece of research that would not have otherwise been possible. It was also intriguing television.