Not raving but drowning - could MDMA help therapy?

Love, hate and Ecstasy.

 

“Studies show that when you first fall in love, serotonin levels plummet and the brain's reward centres are flooded with dopamine. This gives a high similar to an addictive drug, creating powerful links in our minds between pleasure and the object of our affection, and meaning we crave the hit of our beloved again and again.”

It’s been a while since I last fell in love. However, reading that passage from a New Scientist feature did remind me of how some people can feel after taking MDMA. Perhaps the best word to describe it is infatuation. Like a lovesick teenager, they grab every chance they get to talk about it. Like Romeo mooning over Rosaline, they wonder almost obsessively when they might get back together with it again. No one else can see as clearly as they can just how wonderful it is.

Given that the comedown from MDMA is so fast, and any obvious physiological symptoms are gone within a few days, the feeling can last a surprisingly long time – a few weeks. Then they begin to get that sheepish sense that they had perhaps been behaving a little foolishly, that their friends had tolerated their obsession but were glad they’d finally stopped blathering on about it whenever the subject – or any obliquely related subject – came up.

At least most people don’t immortalise the infatuation by releasing an album. It wouldn’t be surprising if Madonna had had an encounter with MDMA sometime recently. Called your new album MDNA? Made a crass, thinly-veiled, teenagerish, wide-eyed (ha!) reference to the drug on stage at an electronic music festival? It’s suggestive, isn’t it? Remember Tom Cruise’s embarrassing infatuation dance for Katie Holmes on Oprah’s couch? There are similarities, it would seem.

Next week we’ll be able to hear about the experiences of people who have recently taken a Home Office-grade dose of E. The experimental subjects in Channel 4’s Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial will almost certainly tell us they had a wonderful, blissful experience. But that’s not quite a detached analysis: in all probability they will still be a little bit in love with the drug.

And there’s the rub. Almost everything we hear about Ecstasy is anecdotal and subjective. Your experience of Ecstasy, if you’ve taken it, will no doubt be different to the way other people describe theirs, because there are subtle differences between your brain chemistry and everyone else’s, and you took the drug in a different environmental and emotional context.

Channel 4’s show is important because it will highlight the fact that we need to get away from anecdotes about Ecstasy, whether positive or negative. There are plenty of lovers; there are also those whose experience has caused them to harbour hatred towards MDMA. Neither side’s experience provides a good basis for deciding how to move forward.

The objective fact is, we have reason to believe that therapy involving MDMA use can help people get over life-destroying trauma. The study highlighted on Drugs Live involves imaging the brain in an fMRI scanner: early evidence from these scans suggests that the brain on E finds memories of negative experiences much easier to explore. But we don’t have nearly enough data to say for sure, and as things stand, further evidence is very difficult to gather.

Researching with MDMA requires handing over thousands of pounds to the Home Office for a license, a year-long wait for said license, finding the funds for a high security storage facility and a willingness to be subjected to random police inspections. Unsurprisingly, very few researchers are willing to jump through those hoops. And who can blame them when no doctor stands a chance of getting a license to use MDMA in therapy anyway?

People who would benefit from this therapy are not raving, but drowning. It wouldn’t hurt anyone to throw them a lifeline.

Almost everything we hear about Ecstasy is anecdotal and subjective. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”