December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

MDMA research by Professor Nutt that aired on Channel 4 in 2012 has been published ...

This news story was published in the Imperial News section of the Super Science issue (issue 28), as an important Imperial College story from the past few months.


Research led by Professor David Nutt, Professor of Neuropyschopharmacology at Imperial College, and Professor Val Curran from UCL indicates that ecstasy, or MDMA, could be used therapeutically.

Part of the research was documented by Channel 4’s Drugs Live show in 2012 where volunteers took 83mg of MDMA or a placebo in a double-blind study live on air. The findings have now been published in Biological Psychiatry.

By using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) it was possible to image brain activity whilst healthy volunteers were under the influence of MDMA, a popular recreational drug. The effects on the activity of the brain were the opposite of those seen in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that can develop following severe trauma.

Volunteers were asked to recall favourite and worst memories whilst under the influence of MDMA. Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, who performed the research, said: “In healthy volunteers, MDMA seems to lessen the impact of painful memories,” suggesting that “it could help patients with PTSD revisit their traumatic experiences in psychotherapy without being overwhelmed by negative emotions.”

The study showed that MDMA reduces limbic activity and decreases communication between the medial temporal lobe and medial prefrontal cortex, which are involved in emotional responses and control respectively.

Although the research is promising, Nutt is clear he doesn’t want to draw too many conclusions until studies are carried out in anxiety patients.

Our knowledge of how MDMA affects the brain is severely limited as researchers are restricted by UK drug laws. Nutt has been critical of the government stating that “it’s the dark ages beginning to descend on this field”. He was awarded the 2013 John Maddox Prize in recognition of his courage in “promoting science and evidence on a matter of public interest, despite facing difficulty and hostility in doing so.”


IMAGE: Tom Varco