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Pubdate: Thu, 18 Apr 2002
Source: Independent (UK)
Copyright: 2002 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd
Author: Charles Arthur, Technology Editor


Research claiming to prove that ecstasy damages the brain is fundamentally
flawed and has misled politicians and the public, independent scientists
say today.

An inquiry by New Scientist magazine concluded that many of the findings
published in respected journals that purported to show long or short-term
damage could not be trusted. It puts this down to two principal reasons:
huge variations in experimental results and the fact that scientific
journals are unwilling to publish "null" results in which research shows no
difference between ecstasy users and non-users.

At the centre of the controversy are brain scans published in 1998
apparently showing that ecstasy destroys nerve cells involved in the
production and transport of serotonin, a vital brain chemical involved in
memory, sleep, sex, appetite and, primarily, mood. The scans used
radioactive tagging to highlight the number of those nerve cells: those for
non-users showed large "bright" regions but those of ecstasy users showed
fewer. The pictures were used in anti-drugs advertising, and research
findings used to underpin stiffer penalties for ecstasy use.

In an accompanying editorial today, the magazine says: "Our investigation
suggests the experiments are so irretrievably flawed that the scientific
community risks haemorrhaging credibility if it continues to let them
inform public policy."

Two independent experts told New Scientist there was a key flaw a " the way
brains reacted to this kind of scan, known as PET, varied enormously with
or without ecstasy. Some "healthy" brains glowed up to 40 times brighter
than others, and even a number of ecstasy users' brains outshone
ecstasy-free brains by factors of 10 or more.

Stephen Kish, a neuropathologist at the Centre for Addiction and Health,
Toronto, told the magazine: "There are no holes in the brains of ecstasy
users. And if anyone wants a straightforward answer to whether ecstasy
causes any brain damage, it's impossible to get one from these papers."

Similar uncertainty surrounds evidence that ecstasy impairs mental
performance, according to New Scientist. In the majority of tests of mental
agility, ecstasy users performed as well as non-users.

Andrew Parrott, a psychologist at the University of East London, found that
ecstasy users outperformed non-users in tests requiring them to rotate
complex shapes in their mind's eye.

Ecstasy users did perform worse when learning new verbal information. But
according to Mr Parrott, their performance lay well within the normal range.

The findings will not change government policy. A Home Office spokesman
said: "We know that ecstasy can and does kill unpredictably, and therefore
there are no plans to change its classification as a Class A drug."