Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial, Channel 4, Review

Originally appearing here. A quick glance at the TV listings gave the impression that Channel 4’s groundbreaking two -part programme on the effects of MDMA would feature 25 volunteers (including actor Keith Allen) popping ecstasy pills for the cameras. The dangled lure from the TV station that gave us Big Brother was that all hell might break loose and people would embarrass themselves. In fact, only one pharmaceutically altered volunteer appeared on our screens: a psychiatric nurse, who sat rather calmly – less nervously, he suspected, than he might otherwise have been on national television – on the small stage before the live audience and told presenter Jon Snow that he hoped the clinical trial funded by Channel 4 would lead to a greater understanding of, and advances in treatment for, some of the debilitating mental health conditions suffered by his patients. The hope is that the empathy, happiness and hyper articulacy promoted by the drug more commonly known as ecstasy – illegal in the UK since 1977 – might make it a powerful tool in the fight against depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, most of the science had already been done and we watched recorded footage of a vicar, a former SAS soldier, the deputy editor of New Scientist and the novelist Lionel Shriver take pharmaceutically prepared doses of ecstasy, then enter an MRI scanner where scientists studied the effects on their brains. There was a feeling that one of the two scientists leading the trial, Professor David Nutt, might have had something to prove: he lost his job as Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs after claiming that ecstasy use was safer than horseriding (there’s one serious adverse event for every 350 exposures to horseriding, compared to one serious adverse event for every 10,000 exposures to the drug). But, within the limited scope of the programme and within the confines of its carefully controlled and caring clinical conditions, Nutt succeeded in stripping the drug of some of its tabloid-enhanced terrors. Even the father of a young man who’d died after taking it (and 20 people a year DO die after popping the illegal pills) spoke up for the importance of the trial in understanding how ecstasy works on the brain. Standing beside a giant model of the human brain, Professor Nutt (now President of the British Neuroscience Association) pointed out the effected areas, lighting up the self-tormenting loop of negative thoughts experienced by people with depression, and explaining how the drug’s chemistry helped switch off that loop and temporarily allow the positive emotions to flood through. The vicar (who works with the homeless and many addicts) made for rather blissful viewing as she described the sudden, “melting” rush of “happy memories… dancing”. Her emotions turned “from watercolours to oils”. Interestingly, despite her joy, she felt “very disconnected from God”. Novelist Shriver spoke of an airiness and “total sense of self possession”, while New Scientist’s Graham Lawton took delight in the psychedelically enhanced set of a doors. But the former soldier found himself becoming paranoid, angry and distrustful as he described a feeling like “all your veins are full”. He also had a terrible hangover. It seemed possible that a military training which had taught him to remain fully in control meant he was fighting the drug. This was significant, given hopes of helping ex-service personnel suffering from PTSD. Offering another negative view was Professor Andy Parrott, who expressed profound concerns about the long-term effects of MDMA use. He spoke of anxiety, depression and memory loss. Young drugs users in the audience looked on nervously. There will be more on the long-term effects in tonight’s programme, which will also presumably feature Keith Allen as we only caught a glimpse of the actor last night. Since depression is a the major cause of disability in Europe, I’d like to have heard from the Medical Research Council about why they refused the fund the trial and left a TV station to pick up the tab. It highlights the struggle scientists must face for funding on a daily basis. Television is not often going to be interested and its goals are not often those of good, nuanced science. I also doubt there’d be so many viewers for Bone Regeneration: Live! The Telegraph reviews the new MDMA research documentary “Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial” and its success in providing a scientific approach that does not glamorize drug use. The research aimed to measure brain activity in volunteers using fMRI machines, in addition to studying the potential of treating PTSD with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. The study was funded by United Kingdom television station Channel 4 and conducted by Professors David Nutt and Val Curran.