Using ecstasy appears to have no effects on "cognitive performance", according to a new study which controls for other factors such as repeated sleep deprivation, dehydration and the possibility of being drunk or drugged while taking intelligence tests.
"Researchers have known for a long time that earlier studies of ecstasy use had problems that later studies should try to correct," says Doctor John Halpern MD, lead professor on the study.
"When [the US National Institute on Drug Abuse] decided to fund this project, we saw an opportunity to design a better experiment and advance our knowledge of this drug."
Before testing their group of ecstasy users for "cognitive impairment", Halpern and his colleagues eliminated several sources of potential error in previous studies. As well as the actual pill-poppers, the non-using control group were also apparently "members of the 'rave' subculture and thus repeatedly exposed to sleep and fluid deprivation from all-night dancing - factors that themselves can produce long-lasting cognitive effects".
Then, the participants were tested to make sure they weren't still under the influence of drugs or booze while taking the tests, and those who habitually used other drugs which might erode their cognitive powers were also weeded out. The test subjects were repeatedly tested for drugs and booze to make sure they had told the truth in questionnaires.
All in all, this reduced the numbers from an original 1500 recruits to 52 ecstasy users and 59 ravey non-users. The pill-fanciers showed no appreciable deterioration in cognitive function compared to the hard-partying non-users.
Open and shut then - ecstasy truly is the miracle fun drug with no evil consequences.
"No," says Halpern, bluntly. "Ecstasy consumption is dangerous: illegally-made pills can contain harmful contaminants, there are no warning labels, there is no medical supervision, and in rare cases people are physically harmed and even die from overdosing.
"It is important for drug-abuse information to be accurate, and we hope our report will help upgrade public health messages. But while we found no ominous, concerning risks to cognitive performance, that is quite different from concluding that ecstasy use is 'risk-free'."
Of course, one might speculate that the mental level of a person who can tolerate being "a member of the 'rave' subculture" without the use of powerful mind-altering chemicals may not be exactly the same as that of the general population. Certainly such people seem to be a tiny minority.
It's possible that the users had in fact been dumbed down by their pill-popping to the same reduced level of cognition required to handle rave-going without drugs.
Those interested and willing to stump up the cash can read the study paper here, published in the journal Addiction. ®