Monkey Business


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.