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A real fMRI high: My ecstasy brain scan

By Phungushead, Sep 20, 2012 | |
  1. Phungushead
    View attachment 28281 Our reporter experience the highs, lows and psychedelic purple doors involved in taking MDMA while having his brain scanned

    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 drugsMovie Camera.

    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.

    It wasn't.

    18 September 2012

    Graham Lawton

    More Pics:

    A wide-eyed view on being high inside an fMRI
    16:48 18 September 2012

    It wasn't a normal start to my morning: swallowing MDMA and getting inside a brain scanner. But there was a reason for subjecting myself to this rollercoaster ride. I was part of an experiment to discover how ecstasy affects the brain and how it might one day be used to help treat people with post traumatic stress disorder. Early results suggest that the drug could make negative memories less painful. Graham Lawton

    View attachment 28280

    Slightly reminiscent of the Matrix, but with only one pill. It could be a placebo (vitamin C) or it could be a dose of MDMA. I don't know, the doctor doesn't know – in fact nobody knows. But I found out soon enough. Soon after taking it – and before the effects took hold – I was put into an fMRI brain scanner where I remained for 90 minutes. "We wanted to capture both the onset of the drug and the peak," says principal investigator Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College London.

    View attachment 28282

    Inside the scanner. This is my eye, captured by a mini TV camera mounted inside the machine. This camera isn't a normal fixture but was installed by the TV production company filming the experiment for a documentary. The pupil is widely dilated, one of the outward signs I have been given MDMA. The inward signs are pretty obvious too.

    View attachment 28283

    A scan of my brain. These images will later be compared with scans made after being given the placebo to ascertain what MDMA does to a normal, healthy human brain, both while resting and doing cognitive tasks. Mine was one of 23 brains scanned.

    Leaving the scanner. After 90 intense minutes inside one of the noisiest, tightest and most claustrophobic environments I have ever experienced – all while tripping on MDMA – I'm finally released, sweaty, dazed and confused. After a brief rest I feel much better and I'm led off to do a battery of psychological tests. The drug effects linger for hours.

    (Images: Renegade Pictures/Channel 4)


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