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MDMA Brain Scans Showing Neurotoxicity Discredited
Several Articles Highlight Questionable Science
by Erowid, April 2002

In another blow to the US Government's credibility as drug information provider, the Johns Hopkins brain scans which have been used to 'prove' MDMA causes brain damage have been called flawed by independent researchers and editors of the magazine New Scientist.

  • New Scientist challenges the ethics and reliability of science-for-politics
  • New Scientist documents errors and data obfuscation in compromised reasearch
  • Toronto-based researcher Stephen Kish questions reliability of available PET scan data
  • Other top PET scan experts criticize the PET scan data
  • NIDA's credibility suffers once again
Under the cover story "E is for Evidence", the British science-oriented magazine "New Scientist" published a set of articles and editorials related to this topic in April 2002, denouncing the use of the questionable scientific data in the war on ecstasy consumption. There are several articles in the New Scientist, but most of them can be found following the links below.

The New Scientist article is a well-balanced, but critical, look at the issue of overstating the certainty of findings of brain damage in ecstasy users. "We are not saying that ecstasy is harmless to brain cells. It might not be. But the jury is still out. Which means scientists must resist the temptation to turn their always complex--and sometimes flawed--findings into simple scare stories in pursuit of grants and headlines."

It is refreshing to see a mainstream technical magazine publishing critiques of the science-for-politics which has compromised the credibility of government-sponsored science in the eyes of many. Historically, it has been left to fringe groups to criticize the fundamental system of peer-reviewed "science" and the often unscientific politics and economics which govern publication. The New Scientist describes how journal editors have joined in the War on Drugs by turning down articles which do not support the "anti-drug" view, including papers which report "no-effect" results.

It's an open secret that some teams have failed to find deficits in ecstasy users and had trouble publishing the findings. "The journals are very conservative," says Parrott. "It's a source of bias." Parrott himself has had two papers of this sort turned down. -- New Scientist, April 2002.
What is most troubling, perhaps, is how often "Science" has been misappopriated for the moral crusade against recreational psychoactive use. The now debunked moral panics surrounding LSD and chromosome damage, 'reefer madness', cannabis and brain damage, "crack babies", and most recently the ecstasy 'holes in your head' campaign, have all come from premature, controversial, or invalid science foisted onto the public by overeager, overfunded Drug Warriors.

Two years ago, then NIDA director Alan Leshner launched an anti-ecstasy campaign based on images from flawed PET-scan research conducted at Johns Hopkins. The campaign's trademark was a stylized image of two brain halves, side by side, with the darkened hemisphere marked "brain after ecstasy". Unfortunately for the public, NIDA has once again allowed politics and morality to trump their science. The US has spent millions of dollars pressing its "brain after ecstasy" images in widely-distributed postcards and online. Even months after NIDA learned of the data problems, and weeks after the Ricaurte and McCann PET scan studies were publicly discredited, NIDA is still pushing them as unadulterated 'fact' on their web sites (nida.nih.gov and clubdrugs.org).



The centerpiece of NIDA's Anti-Ecstasy Campaign, now widely considered invalid.

Stephen Kish's article in "Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behaviour" published in April, 2002 investigates the reliability of the PET brain scanning showing damage. He concludes that the studies completed to date include serious methodological flaws, huge variations between individuals tested, use of non-serotonin specific tests, lack of test-retest reliability data, and other invalidating assumptions about the types of tests used. He says that, based on the brain scan research to date, "it cannot be assumed that ecstasy exposure [causes] a chronic serotonin deficiency condition."

"Because of the serious methodological concerns in the PET measurement related to the high scatter of the values for the control and drug groups and lack of test–retest results, the data derived from the McCann investigation can only be considered, at most, ‘‘semiquantitive.''" -- Kish SJ, April 2002
Another paper currently in the process of publication also examines the PET scans, showing that the serotonin binding levels recorded for even extremely heavy ecstasy users (estimated 500 mg average dose between 70 and 400 times) in the 1998 McCann & Ricaurte study were typical for controls in other studies using the same chemicals (ligands) and scanning techniques. As one PET researcher described to us, the Ricaurte team didn't have the necessary skills required to competently analyse the data. They were undertrained in the technically demanding field of PET Scanning and their results reflect both a lack of ability and a failure to notice when their results were coming back wrong.

"There are no holes in the brains of ecstasy users," says Stephen Kish, a neuropathologist at the Center for Addiction and Health in Toronto. "And if anyone wants a straightforward answer to whether ecstasy causes any brain damage, it's impossible to get one from these papers." Marc Laruelle, a Columbia University expert on brain scanning probes, agrees: "All the papers have very significant scientific limitations that make me uneasy."

According to both experts, the key flaw in the 1998 study is the sheer variability of the measurements. Some control brains performed up to 40 times better than others, and even some of the ecstasy brains outshone control brains by factors of 10 or more -- a level of scatter that both experts say is unprecedented in this type of study. -- New Scientist, April 2002
The New Scientist and Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behaviour investigations of flawed research practices offer a breath of fresh air in the ongoing debate about ecstasy's effects on the brain. Perhaps better reporting and editorial leadership will emerge over time, in spite of the political pressures faced by peer-reviewed journals.



Links

News

New Scientist

Prohibitionist Anti-Ecstasy Campaign

Information about MDMA Neurotoxicity

"Science" Myth Debunking