A real fMRI high: My ecstasy brain scan
Image: Renegade Pictures/Channel 4
September 18. 2012
See more in our gallery: “A wide-eyed view on being high inside an fMRI”
My usual pick-me-up on a Monday morning is a cup of coffee. Today it’s going to be something very different.
I’ve been up since 6 am. I’ve had a breath test for alcohol, a urine test for drugs and a psychological test for mental health. Then I’m handed a red pill and a glass of water. I swallow it… and I’m told to relax. Which is easier said than done when you don’t know if you’ve just taken vitamin C or 83 milligrams of pure MDMA.
Half an hour later I’m inside an fMRI brain scanner, my head clamped in place and a visor over my face. It’s noisy and claustrophobic but I’m reassured by the panic button in my hand and a voice from the control room.
And then I start to feel it. A tingle of energy, like pins and needles, starts in the pit of my stomach and rises slowly, not unpleasant but not exactly pleasurable either. It builds in intensity, then breaks into a wave of bliss. The placebo effect can be powerful but when it happens again, I’m in no doubt. I’m coming up.
I’m taking part in a groundbreaking study on MDMA, the drug commonly known as ecstasy. The research is run by David Nutt of Imperial College London, a former government adviser and one of the few UK researchers licensed to study class-A drugs.
His main aim is to discover what MDMA does to the human brain, something that, remarkably, has never been done before. A second goal is to study MDMA as a therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. The experiment is also being filmed for a Channel 4 documentary called Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial, which will be broadcast in the UK next week.
Over the next hour I ride ferocious surges of serotonin that balloon me higher and higher, while trying to focus on a series of tasks. The fMRI machine is going through its repertoire of rackets – rhythmic clankings, throaty roars and what sounds like organ music. At times I feel amazing, at others panicky. Keeping my head still is very, very hard. But I ride it out.
When I’m pulled out 90 minutes later, the drug effects have plateaued. My mind is clear, my movement feels smooth and, aside from some jaw clenching, I feel content and sociable. And surprisingly psychedelic: a purple door is throbbing before my eyes.
I perform psychological tests, but my heart isn’t in it. I’m more interested in chatting to the psychologists, doctors, nurses and porters. Finally I head home, and wake up the following day feeling pretty good.
Robin Carhart-Harris, a member of Nutt’s team, later tells me they have now scanned 23 brains and have some preliminary results. While inside the machine, one of the tasks involved thinking about five of my most positive and negative memories. I rated these in terms of their vividness and associated emotion during the high and later that day.
The hypothesis was that MDMA would make the negative memories less painful. “We saw a boosted brain response to positive memories, and a weaker response to negative ones,” says Carhart-Harris. “It fits the idea that MDMA can help people access negative memories without being overwhelmed by them and they might be able to change the way they feel about what happened.”
A week after my first scan I return to go through the same procedure. As I swallow the pill I wonder briefly if last week was some kind of amazing placebo effect.