Monthly Archives: September 2012

“And I know I’ll see your face again”

ImageHere in the UK, one of very few scientific studies into the effects of MDMA (the active component in Ecstasy) has been carried out – and televised – this week. The fact this experiment has found its way to TV is a result of funding being supplied by Channel 4, which adds an odd extra layer to proceedings. Once the pill was taken (each volunteer was tested twice to allow for a placebo control), the participants were first loaded into an fMRI scanner for two hours and then interviewed and asked to take personality and trust tests – all while still high.

The show was mostly filled up with clips of interviews with participants while high, framed with live studio discussions. Small segments of the program were given to displaying the impurities mixed in with the ecstasy that is sold illegally via an interesting analysis of drugs seized at Glastonbury, but for such a high-profile show with such a wide audience, this potential source of danger was not extrapolated anywhere near enough for me. There were also a few debates between the two scientists running the experiment, who were very prepared to argue for certain uses and a few other scientists with opposing views. These got extremely lively and confused, perhaps reducing the impact of these sections – personally, I mentally tuned out at times.

The whole show took place in a very strange atmosphere, with a room full of users and ex-users being constantly asked for their opinion. This added a certain air of legitimacy to the whole idea of taking MDMA, which perhaps went too far and portrayed it as too OK on occasion. And while the possible long-term negative effects are another aspect that is almost unexplored by science, the emphasis to proceed with caution that should have been there was definitely absent.

It is undeniable that, with the exception of the ex-soldier, all the participants reported overall positive experiences. Recollections of positive memories in the fMRI scanner are enhanced, while the experiment appeared to suggest that negative memories are easier to handle, with a reduced emotional impact. The scientists running the experiment professed a belief that these conclusions provided an argument for use of MDMA to unlock traumatic memories while blocking the emotions that had previously hindered recall.

Personally speaking, I have become very open to the possible benefits of legalisation of some “drugs” over the last few years. I do believe there are significant flaws in the current approach, including the fact it encourages the addition of unknown and potentially dangerous components to the inevitably available pills. However, this show seemed to be deliberately taking as much context as possible out of the debate. While perhaps attempting to mimic the isolated scientific approach that the core experiment correctly took, I don’t think that is the correct approach for a show that has been so widely trailed and will have been very well watched.

More important than this TV show are the results of the published research – which has obviously not been released yet. While the fact that the experiment has gone ahead is a good thing, the TV show focusing on 6 of the 25 subjects is an example of the anecdote-based response that far too much of modern politics and legal policy is based on. A scientific method must be applied where possible and should be encouraged to leak into politics – sensationalist shows like this are not the way to go about promoting that approach.

Experiments like this are essential, and should be encouraged, with the results used to inform and educate at the highest level. This experiment could be the one that sparks more and it is important that they are funded to be carried out in a understated and effective way, without the attention that TV piles on.

“Pure Morning/Nancy Boy”

ImageThe placebo effect is one of the strangest and least well understood aspects of human and animal biology. What’s undeniable is that it does exist – a person given a sugar pill will recover from mild colds and injuries up to twice as quickly, as well as some startling effects on more severe problems. It’s also true that the placebo effect can have some very bizarre effects that aren’t as well known:

  • Even if told that the pill they are taking is a placebo, it can still have a measurable effect compared to taking no “medication”
  • Placebos can inspire negative effects as well as positive effects – the “nocebo” effect
  • Placebos can be targeted to certain symptoms – if told that the placebo will help with your toothache but not a bad knee, that’s likely what you will feel happen
  • They will be more effective if presented as expensive and well-branded
  • The placebo effect is significantly diminished or even completely lost if the subject is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease

And yet despite all of the above, the mechanism that causes the effect is still unknown. It’s true that the effect can cause measurable release of dopamine and other self-produced pain-relieving hormones. However it has been less well understood why the source of the pain itself doesn’t trigger the release of these chemicals, instead being reliant on the consumption of some kind of physical process

New research however may shed light on this bizarre aspect of an already strange phenomenon. Subliminally, the fact that an immune response requires energy means that in a difficult, winter environment, it is overall more beneficial to simply endure a minor infection. Or in human terms: “You’ve got a cold? It’s cold, get over yourself!” Get ill in the summer though and people are rushing for the medicine drawer: “Don’t waste the sunshine!”

So the link here is that the placebo effect needs a trigger. In Siberian hamsters, that trigger is sunlight, while in humans, it’s being told that you’re going to get better! Is this a consequence of greater communication in people, or some other reason – obviously this will inspire further research. It also seems that this validates to an extent the benefits of the traditional “couch-based” psychology.

ImagePlacebo pills have been shown to have measurable effects on ailments that are usually considered at least partly psychological – ranging from the extent of physical pain, to conditions including ADHA, some depression and neurological addictions (ie. gambling) and autism. Is it true that often, the act of prescribing, collecting and taking a pill is perhaps more significant to any healing process than the content of said pill?

Perhaps the placebo effect affecting physical conditions is more surprising – but then, the mechanism of physical conditions is often better understood as well. Some people might say that knowingly prescribing a “useless” pill for some very serious psychological ailments is immoral, but given the complexities of the human brain, we’re often not doing much more than taking an educated guess anyway. And I know about educated guesses – I play LOTS of poker!