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Ecstasy effects 'may be imaginary'

Ecstasy effects 'may be imaginary'

LONDON, England -- An article in a British scientific journal suggests the party drug Ecstasy may not be dangerous -- and that reported ill effects could be imaginary.

Writing in the British Psychological Society's magazine The Psychologist, three researchers -- two from Liverpool, England, and one from California -- criticised studies into the drug's effects.

Studies have reported that the tablets -- popular with young people attending raves and nightclubs -- cause long-term brain damage and mental problems.

But the new article criticised that research and accused researchers of bias. The article was written by Jon Cole and Harry Sumnall of the University of Liverpool and Charles Grob of the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in California.

Cole is an expert in cognitive neuroscience and Sumnall is a post-doctoral psychopharmacologist; both work in the university's psychology department. Grob, director of the hospital's division of child and adolescent psychiatry, is a leading U.S. expert on child and adolescent depression and adolescent drug use.

Their criticisms focussed on several areas of existing research:

  • Ecstasy is said to affect brain cells that produce the mood-influencing chemical serotonin. But Cole, Sumnall and Grob said any changes involved the degeneration of nerve fibres, which can be regrown -- and not the brain cell bodies themselves.
  • Some research only reported positive results and ignored negative data, thus minimising data that suggests Ecstasy has no long-term effects, the authors said. "This suggests that hypotheses concerning the long-term effects of Ecstasy are not being uniformly substantiated and lends support to the idea that Ecstasy is not causing long-term effects associated with the loss of serotonin," they wrote.
  • Because many people participating in studies were self-selected and from universities, the article questioned whether they truly represented the general population. "Given the high media profile of the long-term effects of Ecstasy, one must question whether the participants are coming forward to confirm their fears about any adverse reactions that they may have suffered," the authors wrote.
  • Studies on animals often involved injecting them with large doses of the Ecstasy chemical MDMA but "routinely failed to find changes in the behaviour of MDMA-treated animals" even when there were signs of damage to the brain, according to the article.
  • Surveys indicate that about 90 percent of young people in the UK regularly attending raves or nightclubs have taken ecstasy
    Surveys indicate that about 90 percent of young people in the UK regularly attending raves or nightclubs have taken ecstasy  

  • The authors noted that many psychological problems started in adolescence, that Ecstasy users often took other drugs, and that some of the reported symptoms mirrored those caused by staying awake all night and dancing.
  • Most community-based studies have failed to find a definitive cause-and-effect relationship between Ecstasy use and associated problems, they wrote.
  • Perhaps most controversially, they suggested that Ecstasy's long-term effects might be "iatrogenic" -- or caused by a physician's manner or treatment. "We are concerned that the long-term effects of Ecstasy could be iatrogenic because researchers and the media are discussing a hypothesised cause-and-effect relationship as if it were fact," they wrote.
  • The article was countered by three other Ecstasy experts writing in The Psychologist, who dismissed the idea that Ecstasy's symptoms were imaginary.

    "There is strong converging evidence that Ecstasy does cause impairment, that it is not merely iatrogenic," wrote Rodney Croft, a research fellow at the Swinburne University of Technology in Hawthorn, Australia.

    "Although conclusions drawn from such evidence cannot be infallible, I believe that the strength of this evidence makes 'danger' the most reasonable message for the researchers to be broadcasting."

    Michael Morgan, senior lecturer in experimental psychology at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, said he had found "overwhelming evidence" that regular Ecstasy use causes impulsive behaviour and impaired verbal memory.

    He said he did not believe this could be due to "some form of autosuggestion."

    "It seems highly implausible to me that samples of Ecstasy users could be sufficiently suggestible and sophisticated enough to feign such selective neuropsychological deficits and appear cognitively unimpaired in all other respects," he added.

    Andy Parrott, a professor and addiction expert from the University of East London, said: "The deficits are very real and cannot be explained away as artifacts."

    The article also was criticised by Paul Betts, whose daughter's death in 1995 after taking Ecstasy brought nationwide notoriety to the drug in the UK.

    Between 1993 and 1997 there were 72 deaths in the UK attributed to Ecstasy.

    Betts described the article as "despicable." Leah Betts died after taking one tablet of Ecstasy on her 18th birthday. Later it was revealed that she died as a result of drinking too much water to counteract the overheating effects of the Ecstasy.

    Between 1993 and 1997 there were 72 deaths in the UK attributed to ecstasy
    Between 1993 and 1997 there were 72 deaths in the UK attributed to ecstasy  

    "It has been proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that every single Ecstasy tablet destroys parts of the brain. The main thing it destroys is serotonin, and depression follows on from serotonin depletion," Betts told the UK Press Association.

    "It has reached such epidemic proportions in America that they talk of Suicide Tuesday. That's because people who have taken Ecstasy at the weekend are feeling so suicidal by Tuesday that they kill themselves.

    "If you study experiments around the world the evidence against Ecstasy far outweighs anything else."

    However, Roger Howard, chief executive of DrugScope, an umbrella organisation whose members include drug treatment providers and bodies working in the criminal justice field, told PA: "This underlines previous studies that have said much of the evidence around Ecstasy is not as reliable as it could be.

    "This reinforces the need for the UK Home Secretary David Blunkett to refer the classification of Ecstasy to the experts on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, so that we can have an evidence based drugs policy that we can all trust."




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