Ricaurte MDMA Research Controversy

George Ricaurte retracts his paper published in Science claiming that Ecstasy causes severe dopaminergic depletion and can lead to Parkinson's disease.

For a paper critiquing the methodology and conclusions of some of Dr. Ricaurte's other papers, read "Deconstructing Ecstasy" by Dr. Charles Grob.

Learn more about this amazing development:

December 23, 2005.  An article by Reuters news service, "Medical frauds: Korean scientist hardly the first", lists several previous articles that have had to be withdrawn from major medical journals. Included in the list is the 2002 paper in /Science/ by Ricaurte/McCann claiming that MDMA damaged dopamine neurons and could cause Parkinson's, retracted since the animals had actually been administered methamphetamine and not MDMA.

August 2, 2005. Ironically, after NIDA-funded researchers Drs. McCann and Ricaurte claimed that MDMA damaged dopamine neurons and could cause Parkinson's disease, a claim that they later had to retract, new research conducted at Duke University Medical Center has shown that MDMA is the most effective of 60 drugs tested in reversing the symptoms of Parkinson's disease! This research was discussed in an article in News-Medical.Net; note also a brief commentary on this and other related research into MDMA as an anti-Parkinson's disease treatment.

October 12, 2004. As a result of a FOIA request made earlier this year, MAPS now has information on National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) funding awarded to Dr. George Ricaurte and Dr. Una McCann in 2003 for the study of MDMA (Ecstasy) neurotoxicity and functional consequnces of Ecstasy use. The pair of Johns Hopkins researchers were awarded over $1.8 million dollars during 2003. This brings their total government funding to more than $16.4 million since 1989.

September 14, 2004. The journal Movement Disorders has recently published two letters in response to a report of parkinsonism in a former ecstasy user, and include a reply from the authors of the case report. The two letters include a letter authored by MAPS' Lisa Jerome and Rick Doblin and MDMA/PTSD study principal investigator Michael Mithoefer, and a report of a transient dystonia appearing after Ecstasy use. In their reply to both letters, the authors acknowledge the likely rarity of movement disorders associated with Ecstasy use, but fail to discuss the lack of evidence for a relationship between Ecstasy use and movement disorders.

July 25, 2004. A front page article in the Sunday Baltimore Sun discussed MAPS' MDMA psychotherapy research in a favorable light, illustrated with a photo of Rick Doblin. Of special note is the conclusion, in which Dr. George Ricaurte says that MDMA may one day find a place as an accepted medication. On July 29, the Sun published a clarification to the article.

July 21, 2004. Nature publishes an excellent editorial about the conflict between science and politics at NIDA, using as an example exaggerations of the risks of MDMA by Dr. Alan Leshner, ex-Director of NIDA.

May 13, 2004. Nature publishes a lengthy article and editorial about MDMA psychotherapy research. The articles, about which Rick Doblin has written a lengthy commentary, are supportive of MAPS' research efforts. Alex Gamma wrote a letter to the editor responding to claims of insufficient knowledge of extent of risks in human trials made in the piece and providing greater detail on a human trial of MDMA described in the article.

April 9, 2004. MAPS issues a report based on documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests showing that from 1989-2002, Drs. Ricaurte and McCann received federal grants totaling over $14.6 million dollars for MDMA and MDMA-related research. (A FOIA request for 2003 data has been submitted.) This is a rather amazing amount of money and suggests that Drs. Ricaurte and McCann had some powerful incentives to exaggerate the risks of MDMA. This also speaks volumes about our society's warped priorities in that not a single penny of federal money has been awarded to explore any of the therapeutic uses of MDMA. This is an imbalance that MAPS hopes to rectify over the coming years.

April 6, 2004. In an article on good practices and proper conduct of biomedical research published in EMBO reports ("a print and online publication dedicated to providing a variety of sharply focused and rapidly published short papers and review articles in all areas of molecular biology"), Dr. Ricaurte's retraction of his MDMA/Parkinson's paper in Science is used as an example of how "even world-renowned researchers must be vigilant about properly verifying and documenting their work."

  In an article in Talon News (bringing the conservative message to America), the fundamentalist drug warrior, Rep, Mark Souder, Chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources and author of the infamous law that denies educational loans to students with a prior drug conviction, has strongly criticized Peter Jennings's Ecstasy Rising documentary. Rep. Souder's criticisms of Peter Jennings' "lack of a moral compass" demonstrate yet again that the Drug War is a holy, moral crusade where facts are subjugated to ideology.

April 5, 2004. Video archives of the Peter Jennings special, Ecstasy Rising, are now available.

April 1, 2004. Ecstasy Rising. Federal Campaign to Curb Club Drug Use Hasn't Dimmed Its Popularity, ABCNEWS.

  Club Drug Tested as Treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder By Bob Woodruff, ABCNEWS.

  Here are Mark Kleiman's comments on the ABC TV documentary.

March 10, 2004. The Ecstasy Factor - Bad Science Slandered a Generation's Favorite Drug. Now a New Study Aims to Undo the Damage, by Carla Spartos, Village Voice.

This is a strong, hard-hiting article.

March 2, 2004.  DEA Accedes to Ecstasy Test by Kristen Philipkoski, Wired News. This article contains a remarkable quote from George Ricaurte giving qualified support for the MDMA/PTSD study.

DEA Approves Trial Use Of Ecstasy in Trauma Cases, Rick Weiss, The Washington Post

 also see comments on and corrections to the WP article by Ilsa Jerome, PhD and Rick Doblin, PhD.

February 25, 2004. CNN announces that Ecstasy is Approved for Medical Study.

 Corrections and comments on the CNN announcement by Ilsa Jerome, Ph.D and Rick Doblin, Ph.D.

February 23, 2004. Ecstasy Agonistes A retracted study on a controversial substance raises questions about the reliability of government-sponsored research on drugs, By Thomas Bartlett, Chronicle of Higher Education

The Chronicle of Higher Education's February 25, 2004 colloquy live email chat with Rick Doblin is available in the Chronicle archive.

January 26, 2004. NIDA responds to MAPS' FOIA request for documents about Dr. Ricaurte's MDMA research.
We received three documents:

Read comments on these documents by Rick Doblin.

January 16, 2004. Rick Doblin has written a paper discussing how the risks of MDMA neurotoxicity have been exaggerated by government officials and government-funded scientists in a manner that has been used to support prohibitionist policies.

December 10, 2003. A Bad Batch, by Rebecca Alvania. Baltimore City Paper (Issue #50,12/10-12/16). This is yet another long, powerful article about the flawed MDMA neurotoxicity research of Drs. Ricaurte and McCann. The article is sprinkled with excellent quotes from Rick Doblin and Dr. Charles Grob.

December 5 2003. Newsweek Online publishes an interview with psychiatrist Julie Holland on the psychotherapeutic use of MDMA.:

December 3, 2003. THE AGONY OF ECSTASY RESEARCH:
Science Gets Recruited in the Drug War, by Ronald Bailey. Reason Magazine Online.

December 2, 2003. Research on Ecstasy Is Clouded by Errors - The New York Times, by Donald G. McNeil Jr.

 Rick Doblin, President of MAPS, published these comments on the NYT article.

 The Drug Policy Alliance have issued this related press release today.

 Mark Kleiman's weblog, "An Ouchie for George"

November 28, 2003. The politics of rEsearch by Harry Shapiro, is published in the Nov/Dec issue of the British magazine, Druglink.

This article reports that Ricaurte's mislabeling error "came to light when a student attempted to replicate the study and then made an official complaint when permission to publish the new findings was denied." In order to verify if this was accurate, Rick Doblin called the Johns Hopkins press office and was informed that Dr. Ricaurte says that there is no substance whatsoever to this allegation.

November 26, 2003. MAPS sent a letter today to NIDA Director Nora Volkow, Ph.D., responding to a November 18, 2003 letter from Dr. Volkow to Rick Doblin. This exchange of letters was part of a package of material that MAPS sent today to members of NIDA's National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse (NACDA) requesting that NACDA recommend to NIDA that it release information about the MDMA research of Dr. Ricaurte.

Dr. Volkow indicated in her thoughtful but careful letter that she didn't think it was necessary for NIDA to proactively release the information about the MDMA research of Dr. Ricaurte that MAPS requested and noted that MAPS will obtain some information as a result of its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. In reply, Rick Doblin noted that, " NIDA should be forthcoming with the information requested. To do otherwise leaves the impression that NIDA is not actively and aggressively trying to clear up this disturbing episode that has damaged the credibility of NIDA's educational efforts regarding the risks of MDMA and other illegal drugs."

November 21, 2003. Editorial published in Movement Disorders by Stephen Kish, Ph.D., [PDF format] "What is the Evidence that Ecstasy (MDMA) Can Cause Parkinson's Disease?" This strong editorial examines the evidence that ecstasy can cause Parkinson's and suggests that the evidence is very weak. It also critiques the flawed McCann/Ricaurte PET evidence that MDMA causes substantial reductions in serotonin transporter.
Read commentary on this editorial here.

November 18, 2003. Letter from Dr. Volkow to Rick Doblin.

November 10, 2003. RTI denies it made mistake that torpedoed results of a $1.3M study. Triangle Business Journal, by Leo John.

October 20, 2003. MAPS sends a letter to all members of the National Institute on Drug Abuse's National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse, requesting that it recommend that NIDA release all the information about Dr. Ricaurte's research that MAPS has requested in its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. (also in Word format)

October 18, 2003. When to retract?
Reserve retraction for fraud and major error - Richard Smith, Editor BMJ 2003;327:883-884

October 14, 2003. Concern over research reawakens ecstasy neurotoxicity debate, Kelly Morris, Lancet: Neurology Vol 2, November 2003 (also in pdf)

October 9, 2003. Nature publishes a short news story (PDF and HTML) on the MAPS sponsored MDMA/PTSD study. Nature 425, 552 (09 October 2003)
MAPS has a few comments on the article.

October 8, 2003. Could MDMA help people with Parkinson's disease ? A recently published study in marmosets suggests that MDMA can reduce side effects of some medications used in the treatment of PD.

October 2, 2003. MAPS Responds to Ricaurte et al.'s retraction letter.
MAPS addresses the evidence that Ricaurte et al. cite in their retraction letter in which they fail to give up the ghost and make a feeble attempt to claim that MDMA could, after all, actually cause dopaminergic neurotoxicity and Parkinson's Disease.

October 1, 2003. MAPS Submits FOIA Request to NIDA. MAPS receives a confirmation letter from NIDA's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) staff that it has received our request for specific information about the studies that Drs. Ricaurte et al. conducted with genuine MDMA that failed to find dopaminergic neurotoxicity, and about the studies that were conducted with the mislabeled bottles of MDMA and methamphetamine. The letter seems to indicate that there is a good chance that NIDA will release most or all of the information we requested, but that remains to be seen.

September 30, 2003. False Drug Information Harms Kids Marsha Rosenbaum, Research Scientist, Seattle Post Intelligencer, Op-Ed

September 26, 2003. Independent Inquiry Demanded Into Ecstasy Study Debacle, Drug Policy Alliance News

September 23, 2003. MAPS obtains approval for its MDMA/PTSD study from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) reviewing the protocol.

September 19, 2003. Ecstasy scandal grows as second study retracted DRC-Net Drug War Chronicle

September 18, 2003. Independent inquiry demanded into Ecstasy affair - Robert Walgate, The Scientist

  MAPS letter to NIDA Director Nora Volkow
MAPS sends a letter to NIDA Director Nora Volkow noting the many unanswered questions in the Ricaurte et al. retraction and requesting the release of additional information. MAPS states that the credibility of NIDA is at stake. These sentiments are also expressed in a powerful editorial just released by the scientific journal, Nature.

  "Ecstasy's After Effects" Editorial, Nature

  MAPS correction to the Nature Editorial

September 17, 2003. Additional drug research affected by drug mix-up - Robert Walgate, The Scientist

September 16, 2003. Retracted Ecstasy paper an "outrageous scandal" - Robert Walgate, The Scientist

  E-fer Madness - Larry Smith, Salon

September 15, 2003. It'll kill you -- wait, no it won't - Jon Carroll, San Francisco Chronicle

September 13, 2003. Ecstasy study is erroneous - El Mundo (pdf format)

  Science forced to retract article on Ecstasy - British Medical Journal, Stephen Pincock (also available in pdf format)

September 12, 2003. "Scientists retract second drug study; Mislabeled vial used again in new Ecstasy research at Johns Hopkins lab" - Jonathan Bor, Baltimore Sun
This article was also reprinted by the LA Times on Sept. 15, 2003.

  Letter to the Editor: Retraction - "Severe dopaminergic neurotoxicity in primates after a common recreational dose regimen of MDMA ('ecstasy')" - George A. Ricaurte, et al., Science (PDF version)

  "Paper on Toxic Party Drug Is Pulled Over Vial Mix-Up" - Constance Holden, Science (PDF version)

  Oops ! -- 'Killer Ecstasy' study retracted, NIDA credibility on the line, RAVE Act Still Law - DRC-NET

September 11, 2003. "Agony for researchers as mix-up forces retraction of ecstasy study" - Jonathan Knight, Nature (also in PDF format)

  "Your Brain on Bad Science: Leading Ecstasy researcher retracts critical study" - Judith Lewis, L.A. Weekly

  Study of ecstasy dangers used wrong drug El Correo (pdf format)

September 9, 2003. "Researchers Retract Study on Ecstasy Brain Damage" - NPR's "All Things Considered"
 Listen to it  |  Read the transcript

  "Congress Passed Ecstasy Law on Flawed Science/Johns Hopkins Researchers Admit Dramatic Error in Study" - Drug Policy Alliance Press Release

  "MDMA Toxicity and Scientific Integrity" - Mark Kleiman, Ph.D., http://markarkleiman.blogspot.com

September 8, 2003. "'Killer' Ecstasy claim was false" - BBC News Online

  Transcript: "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings" (6:30 pm ET) - ABC

  Alex Gamma confronts Ricaurte in Basel at his public retraction - Alex Gamma

  Controversial Ecstasy research used wrong drug - News Service, New Scientist

September 7, 2003. DrugSense FOCUS Alert: Bad Science Drives Drug War Hysteria

  "Scientists admit: we were wrong about 'E'" - Jo Rivell, The Observer
also published in the Guardian on Sept 6th

September 6, 2003. "Results Retracted On Ecstasy Study" - Rick Weiss, Washington Post

  "Report of Ecstasy Drug's Great Risks Is Retracted" - Donald G. McNeil, Jr., New York Times

  "Ecstasy Study Botched, Retracted" - Kristen Philipkoski, WiredNews.com

  "Researchers retract study tying Ecstasy to Parkinson's" - Frank D. Roylance and Dennis O'Brien, Baltimore Sun

  "Drug Labeling Error Forces Scientific Journal to Publish Retraction" - Randolph E. Schmid, AP Wire Service *

  "Scientists Retract Story on Ecstasy Brain Damage" - Reuters News Service *

(* - these articles were written without any input from MAPS)

September 5, 2003. George Ricaurte, Ph.D.'s September 5, 2003 retraction - published in Science - of "Severe dopaminergic neurotoxicity in primates after a common recreational dose regimen of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)"

Here is a comprehensive list of newspapers that have covered the Ricaurte retraction story

August 1, 2003. MAPS replies to Dr. Ricaurte and Science, arguing once again that a correction needed to be made to Dr. Ricaurte's letter of June 6, 2003.

July 31, 2003. The letters editor at Science forwards a feeble reply from Dr. Ricaurte to our questions about misleading statements in his June 6, 2003, letter to Science.

June 19, 2003. Drs. Mithoefer, Jerome and Doblin have written a reply to the Ricaurte et al. letter (PDF format) published in Science on June 6, 2003. We have submitted our reply to Drs. Ricaurte and McCann and indicated that we would be happy to post their response to the MAPS website if they want to continue this debate.

June 6, 2003. Science, Vol. 300, p. 1503-4. Mithoefer, Jerome, Doblin letter and response by Ricaurte, Yuan, Hatzidimitrioli, Cord, McCann.

COMMENT: The letter from Ricaurte et al. understates by 100% the mortality rate of their primates administered their sequential dosing regimen of MDMA as reported in their paper. One out of 10 are reported to have died in the letter but 2 out of 10 were reported to have died in the paper. While Ricaurte et al. are among the main proponents of the argument that even one dose of MDMA carries substantial risks and that MDMA use can significantly impair memory, it seems that they are showing symptoms of this deficit in that they seem to have forgotten that just 8 1/2 months ago, they clearly reported in their paper that two animals died. Fortunately, we did not forget.

On June 9, 2003, I brought this to the attention of the letters editor for Science and requested a correction be printed in a subsequent issue. The letters editor said that such a correction did seem required by the obvious difference between the higher mortality rate reported in the paper and the surprisingly lower mortality rate that was reported in the letter. What I suspect happened is that Ricaurte et al. treated more animals than they reported on in their paper, so that they perhaps did have a group of 10 animals out of which only one died. If that is the case, that still doesn't mean that they can just ignore the other monkey they inadvertently killed prematurely.

Ricaurte et al. stated in the letter that "one of ten monkeys that we treated with our sequential dosing regimen of MDMA that we used died of complications of severe hyperthermia." Yet their paper reports two deaths related to hyperthermia in the ten monkeys treated. They first reported data from five squirrel monkeys, noting "the fifth [squirrel] monkey developed malignant hyperthermia and died within hours of receiving the last dose of MDMA." Later on, they reported data from five baboons, writing "Again, one of five animals [baboon] died, this time shortly after receiving only two doses of MDMA. Malignant hyperthermia (up to 41.6 C) was again an important factor."

This is an important issue since the mortality rate can be used to help evaluate whether the dose Ricaurte et al. administered to their primates actually is a "common" human dose, as they alleged in the title of their paper. Furthermore, the paper reports that another two primates showed symptoms of behavioral toxicity after just two of the three injections and weren't administered the third injection, data not mentioned in the letter. They reported that "One [squirrel] monkey became less mobile and had unstable, tentative gait after the second dose, and therefore was not given the third planned dose." They also reported that "A second baboon appeared unstable after the second dose of MDMA, and therefore received only two of the three planned doses."

MDMA neurotoxicity is a controversial issue. The credibility of Science and of the Ricaurte et al. team is at stake when the number of animals they say died from the doses of MDMA administered declines over time.

October 8, 2002. MAPS' reply to the paper published in Science by George Ricaurte, et. al "Severe Dopaminergic Neurotoxicity in Primates After a Common Recreational Dose Regimen of MDMA ('Ecstasy')"

Media Reports

September 30, 2002. "On Ecstasy, Consensus Is Elusive" — Rick Weiss, Washington Post

September 27, 2002. "Study in Primates Shows Brain Damage From Doses of Ecstasy" — Donald G. McNeil, Jr., New York Times

September 26, 2002. "Ecstasy users 'risk Parkinson's disease'" — David Concar, New Scientist

September 26, 2002. "Study: Ecstasy Doses Can Hurt Brain" — Paul Recer, Associated Press

September 26, 2002. MAPS Press Release — "Scientists Sharply Criticize Conclusions of New MDMA (Ecstasy) Report"