Nearly half a million people are believed to take the Class A drug ecstasy every year in Britain and the country was dubbed the ‘drug-taking capital of Europe' in a recent EU Drugs Agency report.
Now, in a UK television first, two live Channel 4 programmes will follow volunteers as they take MDMA, the pure form of ecstasy, as part of a groundbreaking scientific study.
Presented by Jon Snow and Dr Christian Jessen, the programmes will include footage of the scientific study alongside a debate exploring issues around the controlled drug.
The programmes aim to cut through the emotional debate surrounding the issue and accurately inform the public about the effects and potential risks of MDMA.
The six-month long neuroscience study - designed by two of the world's leading experts on MDMA, psychopharmacologists Professor David Nutt of Imperial College London and Professor Val Curran of University College London - is using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine how MDMA affects the resting brain in healthy volunteers for the first time.
The programmes also look at whether results from the study could also inform future studies into potential clinical use of the drug, particularly in the therapeutic treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Volunteers - including actor Keith Allen, novelist Lionel Shriver, a vicar, a former MP and an ex-soldier - will take a 83mg dose of pharmaceutical-grade MDMA (as well as, separately, a placebo) under laboratory conditions at Imperial College London, supervised by medical staff, before undergoing an fMRI brain scan and a series of cognitive tests to examine MDMA's effects on empathy, trust and memory.
The study, which is funded by Channel 4, has been subject to an ethical approval process for research involving healthy volunteers, who were all screened by medics and psychiatrists before giving their fully-informed consent to take part. Professors Nutt and Curran retain control over the research, which they plan to submit for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
The programmes will provide detailed analysis of the neurological and psychological effects of MDMA, the potential risks and consequences of taking the drug both in the short and long-term, and explore the new research into potential therapeutic benefits of MDMA.
Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial will include debates featuring people representing a wide range of views on the issues, including scientists, former police, politicians and campaigners, as well as members of the public.
Alongside the programmes will be extensive online resources and links to support and advice at http://channel4.com/drugslive and viewers will be able to interact via social media.
Channel 4 Senior Commissioning Editor, David Glover, said: "The use of controlled drugs, including ecstasy, is a hugely important issue and Britain has been called the ‘drug-taking capital of Europe'. But too often the facts - and particularly the science - can become lost in the heat of the argument.
"These programmes will feature the results of a six-month long scientific study that aims to demonstrate the effects of using ecstasy on the brain and behaviour alongside a grown-up debate about the issues raised featuring a wide range of views. This is a project that only Channel 4 would be brave enough to commission."
David Nutt, the Edmond J. Safra Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, said: "Nearly half a million people are believed to take ecstasy or MDMA every year in the UK, but there has been very little research into what it does in the brain. This is the first study that will involve brain scans of people taking MDMA while not performing any tasks. Imaging technology has improved enormously recently, so these experiments will give us a much clearer picture of the fundamental effects of MDMA on the resting brain than anyone has been able to get before.
"The context in which people will take MDMA in this study will be very different and much safer than the context in which people use it recreationally, with a controlled dose, a pure sample of the drug, absence of any other drugs or alcohol, and a doctor monitoring their health. This means the study won't tell us whether it's safe to take ecstasy in a club, but it will improve our understanding of how MDMA achieves its psychoactive effects. This will help people to make decisions about drug-taking with more information about its potential harms and how to reduce the risks. It could also help inform discussions about potential clinical uses of the drug, which could be tested in later studies."
Professor Curran said: "Ecstasy has been used as a recreational drug since it hit the rave scene in the late 1980s. In all those years, surprisingly few controlled, scientific studies have analysed its effects upon humans.
"This new study looks at the effects of MDMA on an individual's brain and behaviour. How does it affect empathy - our ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes? And how does it affect the level of trust we place in other people and our socializing with them? This study investigates how people are affected not only immediately after taking MDMA but also during the following days as they deal with the ‘come down' effect of the drug leaving their system.
"Giving people balanced, evidenced-based information about the effects of drugs is crucial if we want them to make informed personal and political decisions about drug use. These programmes will provide a unique opportunity to share the science of MDMA."
Programme 1 (tx: Wednesday, September 26th, 10pm)
The first live programme attempts to unravel the mysteries of MDMA, revealing how it affects the brain. Professor David Nutt will reveal the results of his team's six-month scientific trial and, in a UK TV first, the programme will follow some of the volunteers - including actor Keith Allen, novelist Lionel Shriver, a vicar, a former MP and an ex-soldier - through the trial, showing the effects of MDMA on their brains in real time using state of the art technology.
The programme also follows people on a night out, looks at the potential side-effects and dangers of taking MDMA and includes a discussion with an expert who disagrees with the study and is sceptical about its purpose.
Programme 2 (tx: Thursday, September 27th, 10pm)
The second live programme investigates the implications of a six-month scientific study of the effects of MDMA, including potential clinical uses - such as whether it could offer a breakthrough in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The programme discovers what recreational users can learn from the trial before discussing MDMA's classification as a Class A drug and possible long-term effects.
Director David Coleman
Programme Editor: Liz Foley
Exec Prod: Alan Hayling
Prod Co: Renegade Productions