Extreme emotions

Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial.

This is the name of the TV programme, shown on Channel 4 over two nights this week, which will examine the effects of MDMA (the active component of the class A illegal drug ecstasy) on the human body.

Title sound a little sensational? Well yes, it is, but at the heart of the program is a scientific trial – volunteers have taken part in a double blind trial, run by Professors David Nutt and Val Curran, over the last few months that is investigating the brain activity of people on MDMA.

The study has been funded by Channel 4, something which some have questioned (for example, see this tweet from experimental psychologist Professor Bruce Hood). It is an unusual funding route, no doubt about it. David Nutt has admitted that. In recent media coverage – for example on The Life Scientific and the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast – he has discussed how difficult it is for researchers who want to investigate the actions of illegal drugs on the human body.

While some media coverage has questioned the ethics and validity programme (‘Does taking ecstasy live on telly glamorise drugs?The Sun’s headline read on the 26th whilst the RadioTimes’ review went under the title ’Proper science or a publicity stunt?’), I hope that people will see beyond this to the science.

Last year I did research for the pre-recorded segments and development research for the live sections of the programmes. Drugs are such an emotive subject, but, as I discussed in a previous blog post, inducing some emotion is needed in order to engage people with scientific content.

But the trouble comes when this emotion gets out of control, or it is combined with political or economic pressures. It was abundantly clear when researching content for the programmes that the heightened emotions that come with the subject of drugs, combined with political influence, can lead to prejudice and inaccurate reporting of the science. And this has led to a lot of long held untruths about the science… and some interesting policy decisions.

I previously wrote about when political interference has historically led to inaccurate dissemination of information about drugs. In an ABC documentary special, called ‘Ecstasy Rising’, a US Drug Enforcement Administration official was filmed talking about Ecstasy: ‘For lack of a better term, it turns your brain into Swiss cheese… puts holes in it, does permanent brain damage, irreversible, irreversible from the very first time,’ he says on film.  The study this official was basing his statement on came from a NIDA funded study carried out by Dr Una McCann and colleagues that the scientific community subsequently discredited. Despite this, the ‘facts’ of the study continued to be used by the US government.

But it isn’t just historically that prejudice about drugs has led to distortion of the facts or prevented balanced discussions about the facts. In a recent Guardian article, Julia Manning discussed whether the Channel 4 study was right or not with David Nutt. Although she may have had some excellent points to make, she seemed to completely miss the points David Nutt was trying to make. I have to say I completely agree with him when he said, ‘Your argument with me is essentially fuelling … prejudice.’

Whether we are talking about research into illegal drugs, or other controversial subjects, there are some big questions to be answered about how research into these subjects is carried out. It is clear that, even if the scientific process is not compromised by political and personal pressures, the way the information is used and received is.  How do we capture this emotional engagement with the subject so people can engage with the science behind them without the long-standing prejudices?

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