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Greater brain risks from "real-world" ecstasy use

By Terrapinzflyer, Mar 29, 2011 | Updated: Mar 30, 2011 | | |
  1. Terrapinzflyer
    For a glimpse into real-world drug use, Australian researchers went to parties where people were using a drug known as ecstasy - and discovered that users' brains were at far more risk from the drug than anyone had suspected.

    The researchers also found that ecstasy pills often contain a variety of other drugs.

    "What's concerning is that most studies looking at toxicity in people or animals look at a single drug," said Dr. Thomas Newton, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine, who was not involved in this study.

    "We have no idea what happens when you start mixing like this."

    For this study, 56 people who had taken ecstasy at least five times in the past agreed to invite the researchers to house parties where they took ecstasy once again.

    The researchers collected a sample of the pills and measured users' blood levels of MDMA - the chemical that's in ecstasy - every hour for 5 hours after people took the drug. At the end of the study, each user received AUS$200 (about US$205, or 128 GBP) for participating.

    In some people, the amount of MDMA reached levels that cause injury or death in primates.

    The researchers found that only half of the pills consisted entirely of MDMA. The other half also contained methamphetamine or chemicals related to MDMA: MDEA or MDA.

    Some pills had no MDMA at all. The ones that did had amounts that ranged widely, from as low as 25 mg to ten times that amount.

    "This highlights a significant public health concern, particularly regarding the existence of pills containing more than 200 mg of MDMA," the authors write in their report of the study, which is published in the journal Addiction.

    Because the research was intended to capture a realistic snapshot of ecstasy use, the number of pills people took over the course of an evening varied as well. Most users ingested more than one pill; some people took as many as five.

    "Taking multiple pills is likely to lead to very high blood concentration, which may be harmful," Dr. Rod Irvine, the lead author of the study, wrote in an email to Reuters Health.

    That's because concentrations of MDMA in users' blood did not stop climbing during the 5 hours of sampling.

    "We were surprised that the...concentrations continued to rise throughout the study," Irvine, a professor at the University of Adelaide, said. "The higher levels are approaching those that have been shown to be damaging to brain cells in animal models."

    Three users had blood concentrations greater than 700 mg/L, which was poisonous to primates in laboratory studies. Another three users had concentrations very close to that level.

    "Those are big numbers," Newton said of the blood concentrations.

    Irvine said that most users continued to take more ecstasy throughout the night, even though their blood concentrations from the initial pill had not peaked.

    The authors speculate that users might develop a tolerance to the drug while they're using it, making them feel less intoxicated even while their blood levels of the drug are increasing.

    None of the users in the study suffered any immediate health problems from taking ecstasy.

    According to the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, ecstasy can interfere with heart rate and temperature regulation and can cause brain damage.

    Seven of every 100 twelfth-graders say they have tried ecstasy.

    Irvine said that collecting data at parties is a valuable way to get a sense of what people are actually exposing themselves to.

    For instance, in 14 people the amount of MDMA in the blood reached levels that had never been studied in humans in the lab.

    In laboratory studies, ethical considerations prevent researchers from testing such high doses in people, so the amounts they experiment with "do not reflect the range used naturally," Irvine wrote.

    Regarding the information Irvine's team collected, Newton said, "It's very unique to pull that off."

    The research was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia.

    By Kerry Grens
    NEW YORK | Wed Mar 30, 2011
    SOURCE: Addiction, online February 14, 2011.


    Referenced paper uploaded to archives HERE


  1. chaos69
    200mg per pill?!? 700mg/L?!? Doesn't the average person have about 5 litres of blood. Even at 200mg per pill with 100% bioavailability thats a lot of pills to take to get to that level. And I though there was a mdma drought in australia.

    Can't help but think theres a decimal point missing there somewhere
  2. LordeV
    This study is a major bioethics fail. Researchers went into a illegal drug venue; collected blood from high people after seeing them ingesting pills containing a unknown cocktail of drugs; and to top, paid them after the study. As far as one knows, this is encouraging drug use and stimulating risky behaviors.
  3. Terrapinzflyer
    ^^ I would rather disagree. Is it somehow more ethical to ignore real world usage, and instead provider users with health and safety information based on studies done on rats? Personally- I think the wealth of information to be gathered from real world research is by far the lessor of two evils.
  4. LordeV
    ^^Suppose they were injecting in themselves gasoline; would it be ethical for researchers to stick around and collect blood samples while the ravers killed themselves slowly? This is akin to assisted suicide. Add money into the mix and they would be basically paying someone to kill himself.

    We still do not know for sure whether MDMA causes long-term harm or irreversible to the brain or to other organs, but the basic premise of the study is that it does hence what they are doing is akin to assisted self-harm. In my pet elephant's country, a study like that wouldn't have a chance in hell to be funded and published. It involves sanctioning and exposure of subjects of possibly hazardous activities in exchange of cash. This breaks the very principle of bioethics.

    This doesn't mean the study is not valid; it is. The major problem here is that accordingly to the mainstream view of bioethics and how to make experiments in human beings, this study breaks all the rules.
  5. RaoulDuke32
    Thats a ridiculous analogy. No one injects gasoline. I know it was meant as a "what if"? but its totally asanine.

    The reality is that these people would have been doing the exact same thing if the researchers werent around. The researches didnt provide the drugs, they didnt provide the set or the setting. In order to get the most accurate view of what is actually happening in clubs and raves one would not interfere.

    The whole basis of a scientific experiment is not interfering with the subjects so you dont alter the results.

    Drug studies have always been biased and totally controlled, whereas the drug taking public is the complete opposite.

    This study may have slightly endangered the participants (not really b/c they would have done it anyway) but the benefit of others learning from their mistakes is much greater. Also users may learn the greatest lesson of all in taking substances, namely to be cautious and know what your taking and how much!
  6. RaoulDuke32
    And the money is just for the rights to publish these peoples actions. Not a bribe to take drugs.
  7. Jatelka
  8. EscapeDummy
    What I am reading is, "It's OK and ethical for drug users to consume the drugs they have, but it is not alright or ethical for scientists to gather data from it"
  9. corvardus
    It isn't. Assisted suicide is providing the materials and means in order for you to take your own life. The difference here is that the drug is not sourced by the researchers and the researchers are not determining who is taking what and how much.

    It is the same kind of "ethics" that befall natural history researchers. Should they allow a Polar Bear and their cub to starve to death after 6 months of no food, having swam 2000 miles across the Arctic ocean without a break. The researchers are simply allowing "nature" to take its course. In this case a Homo sapiens sapiens is observing the "natural" behaviours of another member of Homo sapiens sapiens and are not interfering in any meaningful way.

    It depends how the participants of the study were "recruited". The language of the article seems to imply that the researchers were invited to existing house parties where the drugs were sourced by the users at considerable risk to themselves placing considerable trust in the researchers not to tip off the police for what is, ultimately, a pittance.

    If I were ever in that position then I would want a significant amount of money to take the risk.

    Secondly it would seem that samples of the drugs were given to the researchers in order to determine their composition along with an invasive procedure in procuring blood samples. I don't know the prices for drugs but looking at the money offered by the researchers it would cover the cost of a sample or two of the drug and a bit of money for the inconvenience. The money was there to supply incentive for the participants to allow observation and invasion of their "high" (extracting blood I imagine is not the best thing to do when you're rolling your tits off, but not too much as to allow them to buy a significantly more drug than they would be willing to pay for themselves.

    The premise of the study was to determine the actual dose of drug that individuals would take of in a normal house-party setting and with what common combinations with other drugs.

    This would allow for more informed analyses of risk/harm in which to educate the public/politicians with regards to ecstacy.

    That is definitely something to be challenged on if one choose so but the researchers definitely didn't go in without ethical approval. Perhaps you could explain to me how the researchers obtaining the data in-situ was unethical.

    I believe that given the normal risk assessments health checkups regarding their liver function would be selective criteria. We already know that MDMA on its own doesn't present a significant health risk at what was termed "normal" doses.

    It would be unethical and unscientific for a liver damaged individual to partake in the study since their metabolism is going to be compromised and the data provided by that individual would not realistically be a member of the general healthy population.

    I would have to agree to disagree on the notion that simple observation and health monitoring to an event that the participants organised, the participants sourced, and the participants paid for would be unethical.

    Edit: I believe the journal article referenced by this news story is: Pill content, dose, and resulting plasma concentrations of MDMA in recreational “ecstasy” users

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