By David Concar

MDMA is being hailed as the key to better treatments for the Parkinsonís disease, marking a complete turnaround from a few weeks ago when ecstasy was condemned for causing the disease.

New animal studies have confirmed anecdotal reports that ecstasy can dramatically curb the uncontrollable arm and leg movements that plague so many people with Parkinsonís. But the finding may be of little immediate help to sufferers.

The researchers are not calling for patients to be given legal supplies of MDMA. Instead, they want to look for related drugs with the same beneficial effects. And patients are being warned against trying MDMA for themselves. ďItís impure, illegal and dangerous,Ē says Robert Meadowcroft, policy director of Britainís Parkinsonís Disease Society.

Others are calling for further animal studies to establish the effective dose, followed by human trials. ďPeople who are suffering should have the right to decide carefully for themselves whether or not to take MDMA,Ē says American drugs policy campaigner Rick Doblin. His organisation, MAPS, recently won approval from the Food and Drug Administration for a human trial of ecstasy for treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

Regaining control

The latest study was prompted by the experiences of a former stuntman, Tim Lawrence. He made headlines when he claimed in a BBC TV documentary that ďEĒ enabled him to regain control of his body for hours at a time.

Parkinsonís experts at the University of Manchester decided to test Lawrenceís claims. Concerns about the dangers of MDMA ruled out human trials, says team member Jonathan Brotchie, who now runs Manchester-based biotech company Motac. So the researchers turned to marmosets with a form of the disease.

Parkinsonís is caused by a loss of the dopamine-producing cells in the brain. Symptoms include rigidity and a shuffling gait. Since the late 1960s doctors have treated it with L-dopa, a chemical precursor to dopamine that can ďunfreezeĒ patients.

The downside is that patients develop uncontrollable movements after taking L-dopa for a while. Their condition tends to oscillates between flailing limbs while on the drug and immobility off it.

To mimic Parkinsonís, they gave six marmosets a chemical that kills dopamine neurons. Then, over the next few months, the monkeys had daily doses of L-dopa until they developed the usual side effect of uncontrolled movements. At this point the animals were given MDMA.

Dramatic effects

The effects were dramatic. Normally, monkeys on L-dopa move their arms and legs around in a repetitive and uncontrolled way virtually all the time. But in the six hours after a dose of MDMA, these movements happened no more than 15 per cent of the time. MDMA somehow reduces the debilitating side effects of L-dopa without blocking its beneficial effects.

ďThe magnitude and quality of the effect took us by surprise,Ē says Brotchie, whose teamís findings were unveiled this week at the conference of the Society for Neuroscience in Florida. ďIt was always possible that Timís response to ecstasy was unusual.Ē

The researchers suspect the finding reflects MDMAís ability to stimulate the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. That might make up for a lack of serotonin caused by taking L-dopa for prolonged periods, says Brotchie. However, there are fears that MDMA can damage serotonin-producing cells.

And last month the journal Science published a paper claiming that MDMA can actually cause the type of damage to dopamine cells that can lead to Parkinsonís. But the evidence was far from conclusive.