An experiment in which volunteers take the dance drug Ecstasy is to be screened on Channel 4 in a first for British television.
This research forms part of the Beckley Foundation/Imperial College Psychedelic Research Programme: a collaboration between Amanda Fielding and Prof. David Nutt’s team at Imperial College.
Volunteers will take MDMA, the pure form of Class A drug, as part of the groundbreaking scientific study to be shown on two new Channel 4 science programmes: Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial.
The experiments by Professor David Nutt, the sacked government adviser on drugs, and Prof Val Curran, are designed to see the effect the Ecstasy has on the brain.
The six month long neuroscience study will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the effects of MDMA on resting brain activity in healthy volunteers for the first time.
In addition to providing fundamental information on how MDMA affects the resting brain, results from the study might also inform future studies into whether the drug might be of potential clinical use.
A UK television first, the 2 x 60-minute programmes will include recorded footage of part of the scientific study alongside a live debate exploring issues around the controlled drug.
The programmes follow Channel 4’s successful Surgery Live in 2009.
The programmes aim to cut through the emotional debate surrounding the issue and accurately inform the public about the effects and potential risks of MDMA.
The UK was dubbed the “drug-taking capital of Europe” after a recent EU Drugs Agency report and nearly half a million British people are believed to take ecstasy every year.
Volunteers will take a 83mg dose of pharmaceutical grade MDMA (as well as a placebo) under laboratory conditions at Imperial College London, supervised by medical staff, before undergoing an fMRI brain scan and series of cognitive tests to examine MDMA’s effects on empathy, trust and memory.
The study, which is funded by Channel 4, has been subject to an ethical approval process for research involving healthy volunteers, who were all screened by medics and psychiatrists before giving their fully-informed consent to take part.
Professors Nutt and Curran retain control over the research, which they plan to submit for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
The programmes will provide detailed analysis of the neurological and psychological effects of MDMA, the potential risks and consequences of taking the drug both in the short and long-term, and explore the new research into potential therapeutic benefits of MDMA.
Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial (w/t) will include a debate featuring people representing a wide range of views on the issues, including scientists, police, politicians and campaigners, as well as members of the public.
David Glover, Channel 4 Senior Commissioning Editor, said: “The use of controlled drugs, including ecstasy, is a hugely important issue and Britain has been called the ‘drug-taking capital of Europe’. But too often the facts – and particularly the science – can become lost in the heat of the argument.
“These programmes will feature a scientific study that aims to demonstrate the effects of using ecstasy on the brain and behaviour alongside a grown-up debate about the issues raised featuring a wide range of views. This is a programme that only Channel 4 would be brave enough to commission.”
Prof Nutt, the Edmond J. Safra Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, said: “Nearly half a million people are believed to take ecstasy or MDMA every year in the UK, but there has been very little research into what it does in the brain.
“This is the first study that will involve brain scans of people taking MDMA while not performing any tasks.
“Imaging technology has improved enormously recently, so these experiments will give us a much clearer picture of the fundamental effects of MDMA on the resting brain than anyone has been able to get before.
“The context in which people will take MDMA in this study will be very different and much safer than the context in which people use it recreationally, with a controlled dose, a pure sample of the drug, absence of any other drugs or alcohol, and a doctor monitoring their health.
“This means the study won’t tell us whether it’s safe to take ecstasy in a club, but it will improve our understanding of how MDMA achieves its psychoactive effects.
“This will help people to make decisions about drug-taking with more information about its potential harms and how to reduce the risks.
“It could also help inform discussions about potential clinical uses of the drug, which could be tested in later studies.”
Prof Curran said: “Ecstasy has been used as a recreational drug since it hit the rave scene in the late 1980s.
“In all those years, surprisingly few controlled, scientific studies have analysed its effects upon humans. “This new study looks at the effects of MDMA on an individual’s brain and behaviour. How does it affect empathy – our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes?
“And how does it affect the level of trust we place in other people and our socialising with them? This study investigates how people are affected not only immediately after taking MDMA but also during the following days as they deal with the ‘come down’ effect of the drug leaving their system.
“Giving people balanced, evidenced-based information about the effects of drugs is crucial if we want them to make informed personal and political decisions about drug use.
The programmes will be screened in autumn.