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Study: Ecstasy could be far less dangerous than past research suggests
A new paper suggests past research on MDMA often overestimated the dangers of the drug because the studies examined heavy users, not average ones.
A new paper suggests past research on MDMA, the main component of ecstasy pills, often overestimated the dangers of the drug because the studies examined heavy users, not average ones.
The idea for the study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, came when lead author Balázs Szigeti of the University of Edinburgh read about a neuroimaging study that claimed ecstasy use results in lower levels of serotonin transporter, a protein that's been linked to anxiety and depression.
“I found it weird that they called users who take 2 pills twice a month 'low to moderate users,' I suspected that it is much more than what the average user takes," Szigeti told PsyPost.
“The difficulty was to get data about ecstasy use patterns to test my hypothesis. I realized that the Global Drug Survey (GDS) is likely to have the data I need, so I emailed them arguing for a collaboration. They were interested and then we quickly realized that there is a point to be made here."
The GDS is the largest drug survey in the world. It collects anonymous data each year from more than 100,000 drug users worldwide by asking questions about drug use frequency, how people lost their 'drug virginity', and whether it takes longer to get cocaine or a pizza delivered in a city, as VICE wrote.
Szigeti and his colleagues examined data from 11,168 GDS respondents who said they'd used ecstasy at least once in the previous year. The average person in this group took 12.2 ecstasy pills per year.
Compare that to the participants in 10 prior neuroimaging studies on MDMA who, on average, took 87.3 pills per year. That's 720 percent more than GDS respondents.
“Our analysis suggests that ecstasy induced serotonergic alterations are likely to be overestimated for the majority of users. This is good news for ecstasy users and for the medical application of MDMA, but as we emphasize in the paper it does not imply that all ecstasy/MDMA use is harmless," Szigeti told PsyPost.
(Photo: Creative commons)
Still, Szigeti said more research is necessary.
“GDS, which we use to estimate ecstasy use patterns, is an online survey that people complete on a voluntary basis," Szigeti explained. “Thus, one major weakness is that our sample of ecstasy use patterns is not random, but rather based on a self-selected sample. Unfortunately, this limitation is hard to overcome given the illegal status of the drug."
“The other major issue is that we only examined brain imaging studies, but not studies directly assessing ecstasy's impact on cognition and other potential negative outcomes. This omission was due to that most studies did not report in sufficient details the ecstasy use habits of their participants."
“Besides the implications for ecstasy use, we hope the study will highlight the importance of considering how drugs are used by real users when studying drug use," Szigeti added. “Such information is often hard to obtain for illegal substances, nonetheless, it is critical for the research to be applicable to real-life users. We hope our study helps to highlight this point in the wider substance-use field."
Ecstasy is a hard drug to research outside of a lab setting because pills often contain other drugs besides MDMA, like amphetamine, MDA, 2C-B, and methamphetamine. What's more, some pills don't contain any MDMA at all. This can make taking ecstasy, especially when combined with other drugs, dangerous and, sometimes, fatal.
In its pure form, however, MDMA is not only a relatively safe drug, but also one that could provide surprising mental health benefits.
In a 2018 paper, researchers describe how American veterans and first-responders who suffered from PTSD showed improved conditions after undergoing MDMA-assisted psychotherapy over a long-term period. The results encouraged the Food and Drug Administration to approve Phase 3 trials for the treatment, which are scheduled to begin this year.
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A recent study on monkeys found that stimulating a certain part of the forebrain wakes monkeys from anesthesia.
- Scientists electrically stimulated the brains of macaque monkeys in an effort to determine which areas are responsible for driving consciousness.
- The monkeys were anesthetized, and the goal was to see whether activating certain parts of the brain would wake up the animals.
- The forebrain's central lateral thalamus seems to be one of the "minimum mechanisms" necessary for consciousness.
Pixabay<p>When the team electrically stimulated a part of the brain called the central lateral thalamus, located in the forebrain, the monkeys woke up: they opened their eyes, blinked, reached out, made facial expressions and showed altered vital signs. </p><p>"We found that when we stimulated this tiny little brain area, we could wake the animals up and reinstate all the neural activity that you'd normally see in the cortex during wakefulness," Saalmann told Cell Press. "They acted just as they would if they were awake. When we switched off the stimulation, the animals went straight back to being unconscious."</p><p>This area of the brain may function as an "engine for consciousness," Redinbaugh told Inverse. Although past studies have shown that electrical stimulation can arouse the brains of humans and animals, the new findings are unique because they reveal which specific neural interactions appear to be minimally necessary for consciousness.</p><p>"Science doesn't often leave opportunity for exhilaration, but that's what that moment was like for those of us who were in the room," Redinbaugh told <a href="https://www.inverse.com/science/first-squid-mri-study-brain-complexity-similar-dogs" target="_blank"><em>Inverse</em></a><em>.</em></p>
Future applications<p>The team said the findings could have many applications down the road, but more research is needed.</p><p>"The overriding motivation of this research is to help people with disorders of consciousness to live better lives," Redinbaugh told Cell Press. "We have to start by understanding the minimum mechanism that is necessary or sufficient for consciousness, so that the correct part of the brain can be targeted clinically."</p><p>"It's possible we may be able to use these kinds of deep-brain stimulating electrodes to bring people out of comas. Our findings may also be useful for developing new ways to monitor patients under clinical anesthesia, to make sure they are safely unconscious."</p>
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