This year, for the first time, a television company funded a scientific research study. Not only that, but a research study which included people taking ecstasy live on TV. Channel 4 paid the costs of an experiment on the condition they could film part of it for a documentary: Drugs Live: the Ecstasy Trial. In the current climate of financial difficulties in higher education, this was no small gesture. University College London and Imperial College collaborated with the TV team in this novel way, which may provide a template for future science-media collaborations.
I interviewed Val Curran this week, Professor of Psychopharmacology at University College London. Professor Curran devised the study along with Professor David Nutt, of Imperial College. “When channel 4 first approached us we thought being live was a dreadful idea”, said Professor Curran.
The programme filmed a study where people were being given either a placebo or a controlled dose of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). Potentially participants would be consenting to being filmed in a drug-altered state. In the end the people who were filmed were people who were used to television recording them or had some experience of working in or handling the media: Lionel Shriver, author of ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’, was one participant. Deputy Editor of New Scientist, Graham Lawton, was another.
Professor Curran’s interests lie in the clinical applications of the use of some of the drugs that are usually seen as ‘recreational’. MDMA has been highlighted as potentially useful in treating post traumatic stress disorder. “ I’m interested in the psychological mechanisms by which MDMA might impact on psychological therapies, for example via enhancing the therapeutic alliance”, said Professor Curran. “If we can find things that work synergistically with psychological treatments then that’s a good thing.” Professor Curran notes the evidence-base is as yet not substantial enough to draw firm conclusions about the role for MDMA in therapy, but is hopeful about this avenue of research: “I don’t think that the evidence is there yet but it’s important that people at least have a look. Let’s explore possibilities.”
I asked Professor Curran about the studies that suggest there is a negative effect on cognitive abilities following a single dose of MDMA. She thought these were exaggerated. “If it was used in therapy it would only be a few individual doses (2-3) spread over weeks There is evidence for a transient reduction in word recall after a single dose of 85mg or slightly more but this is gone two hours later”.
As for collaborating again in this type of way with television, Professor Curran seemed cautiously optimistic. “Having done the programme once we’ve learned a lot. There’s probably more coming.”