The first U.S.-approved tests on the therapeutic effects of MDMA, the active chemical in the "nightclub drug" known as ecstasy, may begin in a few months, 17 years after it was made illegal and 90 years after it was invented. At issue is whether this powerful neurotoxin can be an effective tool for therapy. What is certain is that scientists know as much about MDMA's long-term effects on the brain as they do about most commonly prescribed psychotropics -- that is, very little.
A recent Fox News special on the lasting effects of ecstasy had a psychiatrist from Emory University in Atlanta displaying before-and-after slides of an ecstasy user's brain. He claimed the slides demonstrated lasting damage. But when questioned by INSIGHT, the expert knew neither whose research he had presented nor details of the alleged tests. Misinformation and mythology, critics say, are as common in the war on drugs as in the mental-health community.
Many drugs have unintended side effects, but while TV commercials quietly tag on messages that say a pill might cause heart problems or that pregnant women should not handle them, these warnings pale in comparison to the potential dangers of mood-altering drugs. Here are a few side effects of one psychotropic: paralysis, coma, hysteria, suicidal idealization and violent behaviors, arrhythmia, gastrointestinal hemorrhage, ulcers, colitis, hepatitis, incontinence, gout, goiter, hyperthyroidism, eczema, psoriasis, osteoporosis, abortion, glaucoma, deafness, taste loss and sexual dysfunction.
That drug is Prozac, the most widely prescribed pharmaceutical in the country. And though its mood-altering chemical compound has been used by millions, little is reported about its potentially deadly side effects. Its manufacturers get by with claims that the effects listed above are rare, occurring in less than one in 1,000 users. But, as INSIGHT has reported, psychotropics often have been linked with cases in which people have been involved in bizarre and deadly incidents.
Prozac, as well as Paxil and Zoloft, are serotonin selective reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that increasingly have been prescribed for depression. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter, is a chemical that facilitates communication within the brain. It is contended that serotonin allows one to experience happiness when it is released into the synapses, the empty spaces between nerve cells. Antidepressants are supposed to prevent the reabsorption of serotonin so that the "happiness experience" can last longer.
If so, people for whom SSRIs are prescribed should have lower levels of serotonin than happy people. But there is little evidence of this. "The categories of mental illness are so porous as to allow everyday unhappiness to pass into the category of a more significant disease," says Ronald Dworkin, a physician at the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis. The way these psychotropics affect the emotions is more mysterious, and more threatening, than practitioners who use them have dared to admit.
It nonetheless has become increasingly common to prescribe these drugs to people suffering from milder forms of depression. As Kelly Patricia O'Meara reported in INSIGHT (see "Doping Kids," June 28, 1999), "six million children in the United States between the ages of 6 and 18 are taking mind-altering drugs."
Dworkin and others argue against use of psychotropics altogether. But some suggest the point is not that Prozac and other psychotropics never are beneficial, but that often they are administered as take-home solutions rather than in conjunction with therapy and careful observation. And, even when SSRIs are being used in therapy, they may be doing more than "freeing" the mind. No one knows what damage may be done to the brain by a lifetime of psychotropic treatment.
But now some doctors are hoping to use ecstasy on their patients.
This may not be as strange as it seems. Before the drug was banned in the mid-1980s, doctors claimed to have been using it in therapy with success. …