Research visit to USA Oct/Nov 1995
1995 research trip to the USA
First stop was Johns Hopkins Medical Institute in Baltimore, an enormous
research establishment where I spent a week as a guinea pig, to see if they
can find any damage to my functions from using Ecstasy. So far the researcher,
Dr George Ricaurte, has found indications that Ecstasy damages the brain,
yet has failed to find that Ecstasy users' brains function less well. So
this study sets out to look for functional damage by testing and comparing
users with non users. Over the next two years, a hundred of each will be
tested. If you want to take part or see the latest results, see their web page.
I began by being given the most thorough high tech medical exam you could
imagine, at the end of which the nurse said: "Unfortunately your sense
of taste is normal." I soon discovered why: the food was served like
on a cut price charter flight (but without tea, coffee or goodies): a typical
meal consisted of a lump of scrambled egg and two slices of bread all under
cling film followed by a cardboard bowl full of pink jelly on a lettuce
leaf. And I was not allowed out all week in case I sneaked off to have my
fix of coffee or chocolate! But there was fascinating stuff going on around
me, like research on ageing and the effect of Human Growth Hormone, and
when I was transferred to the National Institute of Health they were doing
studies on Seasonal Affective Disorder, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and jet
My days were taken up with endless IQ and personality tests on a computer,
psychiatric interviews, pain endurance tests and responses to other drugs.
For several hours I had to lie still while I was fed drugs through one arm
and blood was sampled from the other; I had electrodes glued to my head
while I slept; a spinal that tap that gave me an alarming twinge in one
leg and a slight headache for a couple of days, but nothing was as bad as
I made an appointment with Dr Ricaurte for an interview, but I was not very
incisive with my questions, as I had been injected with morphine a couple
of hours previously! However, in an earlier conversation with Dr Ricaurte
he told me that he thought the time was right to research the positive uses
for MDMA, and asked me what he thought would be the most promising use to
explore. I had suggested the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,
and a couple of days later heard from his wife and research partner Una
McCann that he came home that night enthusiastic about her doing such a
trial. Her opinion was that the National Institute of Health was not yet
liberal enough to explore positive uses for 'drugs of abuse', but the exchange
at least demonstrates that researchers quoted in the media to support strong
anti-drugs policies often have far more open views.
On to New York where I visited James O'Callaghan, a researcher into neurotoxicity
presently at Rockefeller University where he showed me round (and introduced
me to his rats which were black with white stripes instead of the usual
I asked why researchers cannot simply examine the brain cells for damage
using a microscope, and he replied that the problem was a matter of scale.
There are simply too many cells to check, several billion in fact, so that
the task would never get done. Instead, various indirect methods had been
devised for finding neurotoxicity and the tendency has been to use the easiest
rather than the most reliable. He was particularly critical of assays that
depend on subjective assessment, believing that only tests that produced
hard data should be trusted.
Dr O'Callaghan believes that MDMA has not been shown to cause neurotoxic
damage. Over the past 3 years he has carried out extensive research (costing
$750,000) into the best method of assaying neurotoxicity, and has chosen
a test known as Reactive Gliosis as the most reliable. This is sensitive
to all kinds of damage from air pollution to strokes and even stab wounds,
yet it does not show MDMA or fenfluramine as toxic.
Fenfluramine is a drug that has been prescribed for slimming for over 20
years, and both George Ricaurte and James O'Callaghan agree that it has
exactly the same physical effect on the brain as MDMA (one saying it is
toxic and the other not). The manufacturers have applied for lifetime use,
saying that they have prescribed millions of doses without any harmful effects
whatsoever, a claim that both experts agree is hard to accept as there are
bound to be occasional bad reactions from every drug. But now the authorities
will have to consider the conflicting evidence and decide who is right,
and this may happen very soon.
Next stop Purdue University where I interviewed Dr Dave Nichols who has
a department where he finds new psychoactive drugs for use as tools for
research into how the brain works. One of his inventions was MBDB [presently
sold in Britain as Ecstasy tablets with $ and Fido Dido logos], which he
believes would be more suitable for psychiatric use than MDMA, one reason
being that it does not give pleasure. This, he believes, has a double advantage;
it makes the drug more acceptable (i.e. there would be less incentive for
the drug to be used outside a medical/therapeutic context) and he believes
that pleasure can obscure useful effects. For example, the use of MDMA in
a patient who had never had any psychoactive drug experience might produce
such an overwhelming effect in the first session that no therapeutic work
could really be accomplished. Nichols does not believe that this will occur
with MBDB, allowing it to be used more effectively in drug-naive patients.
Thus, he is focused completely on the use of entactogens as medical therapeutic
One problem Nichols has in his research is being able to precisely classify
potential new psychoactive substances using only rats as the behavioural
model. To address this serious problem he wants to develop a technique for
assay by placing 4 electrodes in specific areas of a rat's brain, linked
up to a transmitter mounted on a harness on the rat's back so it can run
around freely. The EEG from the rat would be transmitted to a computer and
then processed and filtered to generate "EEG fingerprints", similar
to a technique pioneered by a German researcher named Dimpfel several years
ago, but never widely adopted largely because of several formidable technical
problems that must be overcome. Each rat would need to be "calibrated"
using known compounds such as cocaine and LSD, then its response to any
new drug could be seen in terms of how similar it is to the known drugs
using pattern recognition or neural network approaches. Dr. Dimpfel used
this method in a collaborative publication with Nichols to show that the
EEG produced in rats by MDMA was distinctly different from the EEG produced
by the psychedelic agents DOM and DOB.
I asked Nichols his view about MDMA toxicity, and he believed it was neurotoxic
if used in very high doses. There is now some evidence that this toxic effect
may be due to the generation of free radicals. He further added, "But
that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Let me give one possible example that
I have in mind. On ageing, in the brain there is a depletion of dopamine
releasing neurons but not serotonin neurons. The brain functions in a dynamic
way, with different brain areas working together in a sort of functional
equilibrium, and it has been suggested that an unhealthy imbalance may occur
as these dopamine neurons die off, leaving an abundance of serotonin neurons
as a result. Dopamine may be involved in various cognitive functions, including
memory, so this imbalance may lead to certain cognitive deficits in the
elderly. So one could speculate that such an balance could be restored to
a more healthy level by the use of substances such as MDMA. I am just speculating,
but here is an example where MDMA "neurotoxicity" could perhaps
actually have a positive benefit. There have been a couple of researchers
in the U.S. who have in fact suggested that "pruning" of serotonin
neurons might be beneficial. But it would be a very complicated issue to
I commented that, after years of research, no one had come up with a drug
with a more profound effect than LSD, and I asked Nichols if that implied
there were none to be discovered. He was optimistic, believing that among
the molecules yet to be synthesised and tried there may well be a few that
could provide a basically new experience allowing valuable insights of a
different kind. He used the cliche that "I can't describe it but I'll
know it when I see it," meaning that it is probably impossible to conceive
of the effects of such a new substance until it is actually experienced.
He did mention however, that it seems less and less likely to him that such
molecules will be discovered in the future, as the pharmaceutical industry
focuses on more and more specific disease targets, while at the same time
small clandestine laboratories from which such discoveries might also come
are becoming fewer in number.
From there I flew to North Carolina where I stayed with Rick Doblin who
runs MAPS, the organisation campaigning for research into MDMA and psychedelics.
There are a few projects in the pipeline, but its a slow uphill task as
each one takes years of planning, lobbying and persuasion. The proceeds
of the US edition of my book, to be called 'Ecstasy: Dance, Trance and Transformation',
will go to MAPS, so we spent a few days editing and Rick found people to
write pieces to cover the US scene.
Rick also told me about the follow up he did 25 years after the Good Friday
experiment in 1962 in which 10 divinity students were given psilocybin.
The results showed that most of those who took the drug experienced something
that they felt was significant for their whole lives, and those who later
had mystical experiences regarded them as similar in kind to that produced
by the drug.
On to LA where I was again a guinea pig, this time for Dr Charles Grob
at UCLA. First I had an MRI scan. My head was wedged in and taped down with
sticky tape over my forehead, my ears were plugged and a barred visor was
clamped over my head. I was then motored back right into a narrow tunnel,
but a mirror fixed to the visor enabled me to see my feet and beyond I had
a glimpse through a window into the control room. The session went on for
one and a half hours. There were a series of loud noises, at first like
machine gun fire, then a variety of higher pitched noises that could well
be sound effects for a sci fi movie.
Outside I was showed some views of my scan on screen. Sections were taken
across the head and axially; one could zoom in for detail. On to the SPECT
scan. I was wedged in, taped down and given a snorkel type device to breath
through which turned out to contain a radioactive inert gas (Xenon). After
only 6 minutes I was out, but was then injected with a radioactive marker
and was scanned for half an hour while the machine made a noise and rocked
as though a large mass was being swung round my head. Later they would combine
the MRI and SPECT scans, as each shows different kinds of information using
software developed by themselves.
I was not given MDMA, but Dr Grob has tested people while actually on the
drug and built up data on a variety of its measurable effects. In doing
so he came across an unexpected observation that the older MDMA users have
higher brain blood flow than the non-users he tested. This just might suggest
a benefit, as some old age problems such as dementia and Alzheimer's's disease
are associated with low brain blood flow. In case this turns out to be the
case, the university has actually taken out a patent on the use of MDMA
as a treatment for dementia.
Of the 18 subjects given MDMA, two had bad reactions although all said they
were regular MDMA users. One had an allergy to cats and had stayed with
a friend who had a cat the night before, so the bad reaction to MDMA was
probably related to his allergy or to the proprietary medication he used.
This may explain other unexpected bad reactions to the drug.
The second person had such a bad reaction that he was released from the
trial. Later, it was found that he had been given a placebo, yet another
demonstration that the effect of a drug can depend very much on the 'set
Dr Grob had just returned from Brazil where he was chairman of a conference
on Ayahuasca, a natural plant psychedelic used by Native Americans for religious
purposes. The Brazilian government showed interest in using it to treat
cocaine addiction, and the delegates were invited to take part in a religious
service where Ayahuasca was used.
Then to Venice Beach for the afternoon. Within a couple of minutes walk
I noticed a herbal ecstasy stall, and saw it was the one with a butterfly
logo. I picked up a leaflet and sure enough on the top was "People
reported all kinds of effects. Some even saying it was the best ecstacy
experience they had ever had. Nicholas Saunders, UK. E for Ecstasy."
[In fact I had said that followed by "whether they had taken the herbal
ecstasy or the vitamin pill". My actual conclusion was that this product
produced no more effect than placebos. See article
on this site.]
Behind were two girls and a man with dark glasses. I said "This is
me, and I have been misquoted". The guy with dark glasses replied,
"Oh yes, and you misquoted me too. I was really disappointed with that
article you wrote, but I've quoted you word for word. And I've sold millions
of these". He then suggested that I "take a walk", but I
said I was going to take a photo of him instead, "Hey, you can't photograph
me!" "Yes I can, I'm in a public place" and got out my camera,
but he fled by the time I was ready!
Finally to San Francisco where I visited Jerry Beck, the sociologist
who wrote Pursuit of Ecstasy, who helped me with some illustrations and
statistics for the American edition, and Ed Rosenthal who is to be my US
publisher. Incidentally, he does not want me to put the entire book on the
Internet, but suggested I put on 'tasters'. My last, and perhaps the most
pleasant day was spent with the Shulgins where I was interviewed for a radio
programme by them and Robert Jesse.
Spiritual uses of E
Along the way I visited a Christian monk who was keen for me to write
a book on the spiritual uses of Ecstasy and psychedelics. He believes that
Ecstasy brings us back to the uncorrupted state which has been lost through
the pressures of civilization. He believes that although this 'natural'
state may not be suitable for our society, it is valuable as it opens the
door to religious experience. I also talked to a man who has left a high
powered job to devote his life to spreading knowledge about the value of
spiritual purposes including, and also that drugs can be used to bring about
such an experience.
On the way I was treated to a new experience (not one of Shulgin's) called
Euphoria. It was mentally speedy but physically relaxing and to that extent
similar to E, but for me produced no inspiration or pleasant sensations.
It lasted for well over 24 hours and I felt no come down. I would say it
may the ideal thing if you are swatting for exams, as I found I easily concentrated
on working without being distracted, and never felt sleepy. But I suppose
in a rave setting it could feel very different.
©Nicholas Saunders, 1995