Drugs Live: A Disappointing Exercise in Science Communication

Channel 4’s controversial Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial aired over the course of two nights last week. The programme (available on 4oD until the end […]

Channel 4’s controversial Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial aired over the course of two nights last week. The programme (available on 4oD until the end of October) centred on a trial run by Professors Val Curran (UCL) and David Nutt (Imperial) and funded by Channel 4, which investigated how taking MDMA – ecstasy– affects an individual’s neural activity. The double-blind study consisted of healthy volunteers being given either a placebo or MDMA before performing some behavioural tasks both inside an MRI scanner and later at a computer.

Contrary to what many media outlets would have had you believe in the days prior to the air date, the programme did not consist of volunteers taking MDMA live on TV. Rather, pre-recorded clips showing the procedures involved in the trial and experiences of the volunteers were interspersed with live interviews with the participants and academics involved.

It had seemed like the programme, if produced appropriately, could have quite a positive impact.  It is no secret that the communication of scientific research to the general public is often left wanting. A programme which was to follow the processes involved in conducting a piece of research and facilitate sensible debate about the results of a study – especially a study like this, which could easily become sensationalised – could do much to break down the barrier between the scientist and the public. Indeed, in a video on Imperial College’s website, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, a post-doc working on the trial, expressed his hope that the programme would be useful “as a science communication exercise”. It was therefore a shame that this communication was not particularly effective.

Firstly, though, the good stuff. Once you’ve filtered out everything else, the results presented by Nutt and Curran are quite interesting. The researchers found that MDMA decreased functional connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex. These areas are involved in processing self-relevant information and in memory retrieval, but excessive communication between the two is thought to be involved in rumination and negative thinking – indeed, connectivity is enhanced in disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The researchers suggested that by decreasing communication between the areas, MDMA works by releasing an individual from these kinds of negative thoughts, resulting in the euphoria felt while on the drug.

These results might suggest that MDMA could be used as a therapy for disorders such as PTSD. This idea is further supported by another part of the experiment, in which participants remembered negative life events while in the scanner. When participants were on MDMA, there was a decrease in prefrontal cortex activity compared to when on the placebo. Because the prefrontal cortex has been implicated in the emotional component of memory, the researchers propose that this change in activation reflects a decrease in the emotionality of the negative memories. This suggests that the drug could potentially help patients with PTSD to remember the traumatic event that they have experienced without the associated negative emotions.

While it was interesting to hear these results, until a report is published in a peer-reviewed journal with a proper description of the methods and findings, it is hard to really know what to make of the study. In a way, the more interesting experiment at the moment is that conducted by Channel 4 in funding and broadcasting the study itself.

One of the major problems with the programme was its lack of clear direction.  It purported to be about the experiment run by Nutt and Curran, but much of the focus, both in the recorded segments and in the studio, was on the experiences of the volunteers and other audience members who had taken the drug. This is perhaps understandable – it is probably more interesting to hear about personal experiences of MDMA than the minutiae of the experimental procedure – but the focus on these individual anecdotes did tend to distract from the actual science. Nutt’s brief but clear description of the imaging results was the obvious exception to this focus; however, it seemed that the relative balance between the scientific and the anecdotal should have been reversed.

The programme also suffered from the inability of Jon Snow or his co-presenter Dr Christian Jessen to allow anyone to speak for more than a few seconds. Their constant interruptions and attempts to put words into people’s mouths were frustrating, and completely ignored the fact that complex scientific issues cannot always be summed up in a nice soundbite. More than once I felt like I was watching an episode of Mitchell and Webb’s “Big Talk”.

Even in those rare segments in which the scientists were allowed a little time to speak, Channel 4’s conviction that their audience were either too stupid or lacked the requisite concentration span to pay attention to a bit of science for more than a few seconds was still apparent. In the second episode, Nutt and Curran got into an interesting debate with a couple of other academics as to whether or not MDMA use has negative long-term effects in the brain. Basically, the other two scientists argued that MDMA use was correlated with an enduring decrease in serotonin levels as well as memory deficits, while Curran and Nutt argued that these effects were miniscule and only temporary. However, Channel 4 decided to accompany this debate with a supremely distracting stream of viewers’ inane text messages drifting across the screen, as if this would provide us viewers relief from the serious academic discussion occurring in the background.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on Drugs Live. Perhaps for an audience with no knowledge of the area it was entertaining and educational, and maybe a more detailed scientific analysis would have alienated viewers. But I can’t help feeling that Channel 4 underestimated the intelligence of its audience, and ended up with something rather muddled and superficial. Which is a shame, because hidden amongst it all, there was some really interesting science going on.

About Matthew Warren

Matthew is at Balliol College, studying for a DPhil in the Department of Psychiatry, and is a former editor of Bang! magazine. You can follow him on Twitter, @mattbwarren