Article: Addiction: Researchers Debate Scientific, Ethical Implications of Harvard Ecstasy/Neurocognition Study

The July 2011 issue of the peer-reviewed scientific journal Addiction published a series of letters addressing the purpose, design, and implications of a recent study of the effects of recreational Ecstasy use on neurocognition by Harvard scientist John Halpern, M.D. The results of the study were published in the April 2011 issue of Addiction and shed new light on the risks of recreational Ecstasy use after overcoming some of the methodological flaws of previous research.

The Harvard study, for which MAPS provided both the concept and $15,000 for the initial pilot study, found no link between long-term Ecstasy use and cognitive damage. The most significant methodological issue addressed by the new study was previous studies’ use of subjects who had used Ecstasy as well as other drugs, confounding the results by making it impossible for researchers to determine whether long-term changes in cognitive skills were due to Ecstasy, another drug, a combination of drugs, or some other factor entirely. The Harvard study used subjects whose drug use had been entirely or almost entirely limited to Ecstasy, and suggested that the risks of Ecstasy are significantly less than previously thought.

Although MDMA is not the same as Ecstasy (illegal Ecstasy pills often contain substances other than MDMA, and MAPS’ clinical studies use only pure MDMA), these results will encourage additional research into the possible therapeutic benefits of MDMA. According to commentary published in the April 2011 issue of Addiction by Bond University psychologist Michael Lyvers:

“Given that MDMA is being administered to human patients to assess its efficacy as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, ethical arguments against an experimental within-subjects approach to detecting possible long-term brain, cognitive and memory effects of MDMA in human volunteers may now be less relevant. Once such research has been replicated consistently across a range of typical dosing regimens, the chimera of MDMA-induced neurotoxicity in human ecstasy users may finally be put to rest.”

Read the rest of Lyvers’ commentary. The July 2011 issue of Addiction also included letters about the Harvard study from Andrew C. Parrott of Swansea University, John E. Fisk and colleagues of the University of Central Lancashire, and Jacqui Rodgers of Newcastle University, as well as a reply from Dr. Halpern.