Research claiming to prove that ecstasy damages the brain is fundamentally flawed and has misled politicians and the public, independent scientists say today.

Research claiming to prove that ecstasy damages the brain is fundamentally flawed and has misled politicians and the public, independent scientists say today.

An inquiry by New Scientist magazine concluded that many of the findings published in respected journals that purported to show long or short-term damage could not be trusted. It puts this down to two principal reasons: huge variations in experimental results and the fact that scientific journals are unwilling to publish "null" results in which research shows no difference between ecstasy users and non-users.

At the centre of the controversy are brain scans published in 1998 apparently showing that ecstasy destroys nerve cells involved in the production and transport of serotonin, a vital brain chemical involved in memory, sleep, sex, appetite and, primarily, mood. The scans used radioactive tagging to highlight the number of those nerve cells: those for non-users showed large "bright" regions but those of ecstasy users showed fewer. The pictures were used in anti-drugs advertising, and research findings used to underpin stiffer penalties for ecstasy use.

In an accompanying editorial today, the magazine says: "Our investigation suggests the experiments are so irretrievably flawed that the scientific community risks haemorrhaging credibility if it continues to let them inform public policy."

Two independent experts told New Scientist there was a key flaw – the way brains reacted to this kind of scan, known as PET, varied enormously with or without ecstasy. Some "healthy" brains glowed up to 40 times brighter than others, and even a number of ecstasy users' brains outshone ecstasy-free brains by factors of 10 or more.

Stephen Kish, a neuropathologist at the Centre for Addiction and Health, Toronto, told the magazine: "There are no holes in the brains of ecstasy users. And if anyone wants a straightforward answer to whether ecstasy causes any brain damage, it's impossible to get one from these papers."

Similar uncertainty surrounds evidence that ecstasy impairs mental performance, according to New Scientist. In the majority of tests of mental agility, ecstasy users performed as well as non-users.

Andrew Parrott, a psychologist at the University of East London, found that ecstasy users outperformed non-users in tests requiring them to rotate complex shapes in their mind's eye.

Ecstasy users did perform worse when learning new verbal information. But according to Mr Parrott, their performance lay well within the normal range.

The findings will not change government policy. A Home Office spokesman said: "We know that ecstasy can and does kill unpredictably, and therefore there are no plans to change its classification as a Class A drug."

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