The New Scientist, a well-respected British journal, has jumped into the controversy over the damage down by repeated ecstasy (MDMA) use with both feet. And what it reports is not going to make people happy at the DEA. The New Scientist reviewed the literature on neurological damage related to ecstasy, spoke with the experts, and determined that fears stated by US officials have little basis in fact.
The New Scientist cited former National Institute of Drug Abuse director Alan Leshner as representative of the American position, and took it from there. "There is across-the-board agreement that brain damage does occur," the journal quoted Leshner as telling Congress last summer. Research, he added, has "unequivocally shown that MDMA literally damages brain cells."
Whoa, not so fast, good buddy, the New Scientist wrote. "New Scientist went behind the scenes to talk to a wide range of researchers. We found that no such agreement exists. Nobody claims ecstasy is benign. It isn't, and never could be -- no drug is. Yet few of the experts we contacted believe that research has yet proved ecstasy causes lasting damage to human brain cells or memory. Far from it, according to some, the highest-profile evidence to date simply cannot be trusted."
NIDA and the DEA have handed out millions of postcards purporting to show blotchy areas in the brains of ecstasy users. Those postcards have been a key tool of the US government's anti-ecstasy campaign, but the New Scientist scoffed, saying it just ain't so. "The brain scans do not prove ecstasy damages serotonergic neurons," one researcher, who asked for anonymity, told the journal. "Whether to use the evidence is therefore a matter of politics rather than science."
"There are no holes in the brains of ecstasy users," Stephen Kish, a neuropathologist at the Center for Addiction and Health in Toronto told the New Scientist. "And if anyone wants a straightforward answer to whether ecstasy causes any brain damage, it's impossible to get one from these papers [the research to date on ecstasy]." Marc Laruelle, a Columbia University expert on brain scanning probes, agreed, saying, "All the papers have very significant scientific limitations that make me uneasy."
The entire article and accompanying New Scientist editorial are available online at http://www.newscientist.com -- searchers will have to obtain a free trial membership to access the New Scientist archives.