More on MDMA Neurotoxicity Research

The fuss over the retracted Ricaurte et al. papers on MDMA (Ecstasy) neurotoxicity continues. [Earlier post here.]

Nature, a British scientific journal comparable in prestige to Science, has a stiff news account [*]and a harsh editorial [*]; the latter points the finger at both the National Institute on Drug abuse.

“… there remains a bad smell that the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes Science, and the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), which funded the research, have done little to clear up.”


Another remarkable aspect of this episode is the public endorsement of the study, at the time of its publication, by Alan Leshner, chief executive of the AAAS and former director of NIDA. It isn’t clear why an officer of the AAAS should be involved at all in publicly promoting a particular result published in its journal, least of all one whose outcome was questioned at the outset by several experts. The AAAS issued the retraction late in the afternoon on Friday 5 September, resulting in low-key media coverage, which contrasts sharply with the hype surrounding the initial paper.

Some observers have in the past questioned NIDA’s ability to maintain its independence in the face of the immense pressures brought to bear by those who stand behind America’s interminable ‘war on drugs’. Now that Leshner is at the AAAS, he needs to safeguard its independence, rather than pander to the Bush administration’s jihad against recreational drug use. It falls to the new director of NIDA, Nora Volkow, to bolster NIDA’s reputation. She might start with a thorough public review of the circumstances and participants’ roles in one of the more bizarre episodes in the history of drug research.

But Nature looks almost gentle when compared to The Scientist, which reports [*] the unusual demand of two senior U.K. researchers that Science publish its referees’ reports on the now-retracted study.

The retraction last week of a highly controversial paper published in Science September 2002, which purported to show that the recreational drug Ecstasy (methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA) caused severe damage to dopaminergic neurons, predisposing takers to Parkinson disease, has prompted two leading British scientists to call for the journal to publish the referees’ reports.

Colin Blakemore—professor of physiology at Oxford University and chairman of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, who will shortly take up the position of chief executive of the UK Medical Research Council—and Leslie Iversen—a prominent pharmacologist who holds professorships at King’s College London and Oxford University and reviewed the effects of cannabis for a House of Lords select committee report—both made the recommendation in interviews with The Scientist last week.

Even before the retraction, Blakemore and Iversen had been involved in a lengthy e-mail exchange about the original paper with Donald Kennedy, the editor-in-chief of Science, last year. Neither believed the paper should have been published, because of several glaring discrepancies.

The article goes on to detail what seems like the rather strange behavior of the publicity department of the AAAS, which issued a press release claiming that the study had found that neurons had been “destroyed” when the paper only referred to neurons being “damaged.” A follow-up story [*] quotes extensively from letters to Kennedy from Blakemore and Iverson.

There seem to be four key sets of issues here:

1. How reliable is the previous, as yet unretracted, work by Ricaurte’s group, suggesting high levels of serotonergic neurotoxicity?

2. In light of the retraction, and whatever answer one gives to #1, what policies should apply to studies that involve administering MDMA to human subjects?

3. How much influence does political pressure on, and within, the National Institute of Drug Abuse have on research funding and the presentation of research findings? When NIDA became aware — long before the retraction — of problems with Ricaurte’s work, how much of that awareness was communicated to decision-makers elsewhere in the government, including the Congress and the Sentencing Commission, which had based decisions partly on that work?

4. How did the paper in question make it past the refereeing process at Science, and what if any new procedures need to be put in place? Was the apparent decision by the AAAS publicity staff to trumpet, and even exaggerate, the original research, and to “bury” the retraction with a Friday afternoon press release, mere organizatinal self-promotion and self-protection, or was there a political agenda as well?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: