Monkey Business

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Yesterday's New York Times carried a remarkably balanced story on MDMA research–although I'm sure George Ricaurte, the Johns Hopkins neurologist who has devoted much of his career to stirring up alarm about the drug, didn't see it that way. The headline was "Research on Ecstasy Is Clouded by Errors," and the errors are Ricaurte's–in particular, his accidental substitution of a methamphetamine overdose for what was supposed to be an ordinary dose of MDMA in a monkey study that supposedly showed that one night's Ecstasy use could cause permanent brain damage. The same switcheroo forced Ricaurte, whose work is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, to withdraw four other papers as well.

The Times article also considers other criticisms of Ricaurte's work, giving ample opportunity for rebuttal to him and his defenders. Some of them sound less than enthusiastic:

It is hard to find impartial observers in the highly politicized debate over illegal drugs. But even three scientists whom Dr. Ricaurte cited in his own defense said that while his high media profile had made him a "whipping boy" for those favoring Ecstasy research, some of his best-known work has nonetheless been "sloppy" or "not as methodologically rigorous as you might want."

***

When Dr. Ricaurte's 2002 primate study was published, his critics said he could not possibly have given "typical recreational doses" if 2 of 10 animals died and two others collapsed of heatstroke…

"Those dead animals should have sent up a red flag," said Dr. Charles R. Schuster, a former director of the national drug institute whom Dr. Ricaurte has called a mentor. "The better part of valor would have been to not publish until it was repeated."

***

Dr. Nora Volkow, the new director of the national drug institute, declined to pass judgment on [Ricaurte's] whole body of work, but called his latest error "crying wolf and losing your credibility." Because of it, she said, she spent a weekend checking the agency's Web page on the dangers of Ecstasy "to make sure it was not overstated."

So even if Ricaurte's work hasn't shown that MDMA fries your brain, he has done something even more impressive: He has made NIDA look cautious about hyping drug hazards.

NEXT: Trial of Terror

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  1. Why should I see this man as anything besides an honest researcher whose lab techs grabbed the wrong container?

    Because part of honest research is a healthy skepticism of your own data…especially when it makes little sense in light of previous work. And there is no shortage of published data on the toxicity of MDMA. A 20% death rate following “recreational doses” of MDMA makes no sense…otherwise literally thousands of clubbers would have been turning up dead for years.

    The initial mistake was honest (if I recall correctly, the mistake was actually the vendor’s, who had mislabled the compound), but the lack of follow up (i.e., repeating the study that gave an unprecidented result) was–at best–very sloppy science.

  2. OK…so I put up that last comment before reading Ron Bailey’s article on the subject, according to which no evidence of mislabeling has been found.

    So there you go. Make that dishonest on several levels.

  3. Why should I see this man as anything besides an honest researcher whose lab techs grabbed the wrong container?

    A common way to hide high error is to use a logarithmic scale, because it’s not as responsive to delta and more difficult to read accurately. Just like this guy did with his control subjects who had 50 times the normal seratonin levels. Because any neurologist who is worth ca-ca would have immediately noted that a normal dosage of MDMA could not have killed 2 of 10 primate subjects on the spot barring comorbid features. And because his work with dexfenfluramine was apparently similarly flawed to such an extent that the FDA did not approve the drug on account of his flawed or perjured testimony.

    My favorite part of the bit was in the clinical trial about the lumbar puncture, followed immediately by a backpack trek across campus. A neurologist worth even slightly less than ca-ca would know what a lumbar puncture does to a human being. Doing a sleep study s.p. lumbar puncture is pointless.

  4. This sounds just like what we went through with Gabriel G Nahas way back in the 70’s, right down to overdosing the monkeys. One might have thought that after having his work completely discredited, he’d have a hard time finding future funding. Nah, all that matters is that he gave the right answer, the douche bag is still spewing pseudo-science drug war propaganda.

    So if you think we’ve seen the last of Ricaurte, think again. He’ll be back, and next time his study will conclusively show that kissing someone under the influence of X will cause brain damage in your children. And what about this whole embarrassing retraction situation? It’s a safe bet that one’s who exposed the fraud will be unable to find funding or get published, so they won’t be a problem next time.

  5. “Why should I see this man as anything besides an honest researcher whose lab techs grabbed the wrong container?”

    An honest mistake? Any 18 year old with an evening’s worth of partying know the difference between the effects of meth and E.

    If the monkeys start twitching, get violent, and don’t sleep for a week… it’s definitely meth. If they try to hug everyone in sight, chatter endlessly and then crash after 5 hours… it’s gotta be E.

    A neurologist without an agenda should be able to make that distinction with ease.

    If the monkeys start dancing around with glowsticks, then your guess is as good as mine.

  6. I am very familiar with the tedium of checking details while conducting research. The thing that here that really pisses me off is that this half wit needlessly killed two research animals. I’m not against using animals in research but this is just a waste.

  7. “He has made NIDA look cautious about hyping drug hazards.”

    Didn’t you mean to say “reckless”?

  8. “He has made NIDA look cautious about hyping drug hazards.”

    Didn’t you mean to say “reckless”?

    Nah, I think he means cautious: NIDA’s neurotic drugs-are-bad routine is tame compared to a member of the scientific community at an institution as prestigious as John Hopkins having an experiment in which the control group has seratonin levels 50 times normal, and then publishing the results as valid. These sorts of indiscretions are permissible because the results support the notion that drugs are bad. What I find most surprising is that this man was able to get a doctorate in neurology. In anything, for that matter.

  9. Looks like an honest lab error to me. Which makes assailing his conclusions on their merits a slam dunk. Every step you take in the direction of assailing the man personally (“the Johns Hopkins neurologist who has devoted much of his career to stirring up alarm about the drug”) is a blow to the credibility of the anti-anti-drug argument.

    Why should I see this man as anything besides an honest researcher whose lab techs grabbed the wrong container?

  10. Sorry, this is a test. Just trying to get the system to remember my phony email address.

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