Chill out, man
DANGER! Hyping these findings can lead to intoxicating headlines and unhelpful bouts of moral panic...
All scientific studies of the drug Ecstasy should carry such a warning. And that includes the latest research indicating that Saturday night doses of Ecstasy can lead to depression midweek and a blunting of memory (see This Week, p 4).
Some moralistic finger-wagging seems inevitable, but the news is unlikely to scare users of the drug. Many will know from experience about the midweek low (taking Prozac to soften the landing has become trendy), and many will already have heard claims that Ecstasy impairs memory. The best informed will have swapped notes on the Net.
So we hope they will waste no time spreading the truth about the latest studies. Anecdote and hearsay are all very well, but they are no match for science when it comes to weighing up the risks and benefits of taking drugs.
The danger is that the impact of the studies will be undermined by hype and half-baked extrapolations. Drug users everywhere will switch off if they hear commentators playing fast and loose with the facts, referring to mind-fogged zombies or caricaturing the latest research as "further evidence" that Ecstasy damages the brain. (There is no evidence that Ecstasy damages human brain cells, only animal data which is open to interpretation.)
In fact, some Ecstasy users may look at the latest studies and feel somewhat reassured. This midweek "depression" is classified as no more than "mild to moderate". And even heavy users of the drug perform perfectly normally in tests of intelligence and reaction times. Where mental sharpness is blunted--in tests of recall--Ecstasy users still perform within the range of normal behaviour.
On the other hand, any cognitive deficit is bad news, and it is important to start asking what will happen to today's Ecstasy users when they grow old. The drug's effects on memory systems in youthful brains may be subtle, but what happens when clubbers reach middle age?
Another reason to be cautious about the latest findings is that the researchers have no way of knowing precisely what their subjects have taken. Dishonesty and forgetfulness are only part of the problem: drug users often don't know what their pills contain.
This is no reason to dismiss the findings, but it is a strong argument for confirming the studies on subjects who are also willing to give urine samples. It is also an argument for granting psychologists permission to give Ecstasy to human volunteers in a laboratory.
Because until such studies are completed there will remain only one certainty about Ecstasy--its remarkable ability to generate hysteria among those who have never swallowed it.
© Copyright New Scientist, IPC Magazines Limited 1997