For years scientists have debated whether using ecstasy causes brain damage. (With no small amount of drama, thanks to the likes of George Ricaurte and his bobbled bottle debacle, the Hwang Woo-Suk-tastophe of the ecstasy wars.) But stimulant studies regularly rely on mice and monkeys distanced from human habits of use. Who sits in a silent cage and pops pills for fun?
To address the issue, Michelangelo Iannone and a team of scientists in Italy threw a rave for their rats. Well, with a few differences. Instead of music, there was loud static, and instead of scalp massages, there were holes in the scull and electrodes on the brain. The goal was to test if acoustic stimulation would affect the neurotoxicity of MDMA (ecstasy.)
The results? Yes. Blasting white noise at the maximum volume Italian nightclubs allow (95 dB) decreased neural activity in rats dosed with E. Depending on dosage, the brain blotto lasted from several hours to several days. You can download the report, published last week, here, or read about it here.
In the paper, the authors admit, "it is very difficult to indicate the mechanism underlying these effects." So I wondered whether the form the auditory stimuli took mattered. Listening to static at 95 dB can give anyone a headache, but I know subjectively (from taking E at raves as a teenager) that music can greatly enhance the experience of a trip. And I know objectively (from programming neural networks on computers) that random input like static can destroy the organization of a system. A high noise-to-signal ratio washes out meaningful relationships between neurons.
I asked Iannone if using input with some structure, such as actual music, instead of white noise would make a difference. He replied: "We made a lot of preliminary (and unpublished) experiments to assess if there is a difference between the two stimuli, using a brief 'techno music' brain. And I can say that there is no difference (in our hands) between discomusic and loud noise, in terms of effects." Oh well. Actually, it shouldn't be surprising that there's no difference. At the level of the effects that they're measuring, the brain wouldn't pay much mind to the informational complexity of the input. It's all noise to the neurons.
Fortunately, the brain works at many levels. Under the right circumstances the benefits of E and other drugs can far outweigh the risks. Ecstasy was widely used in psychotherapy until it was outlawed in 1985, and today, researchers such as John Halpern at Harvard are fighting to bring it back. Click here to read about the attempts of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to make ecstasy an FDA-approved prescription medicine.
In the Italian study, the authors report: "One of the questions which need addressing by research is how other factors typical of the 'rave scene', such as sensorial auditory (techno music) stimuli, can affect higher neural functions..." Now that they've tackled music, expect future studies to involve tripping rats subjected to candy necklaces and glow sticks.
Prepare for a whole new species of e-tard.