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Stop Press - Ecstasy impairs Sudoko problem solving

    This is not a joke. It is a rebuttal. Professor Nutt’s comments about horse riding being safer than ecstasy use remain indelibly imprinted on the national consciousness, whether for their shock making impact or for their sheer stupidity.

    But now a fascinating new and inventive study by Britain’s lead ecstasy expert, Professor Andy Parrott, should give pause for thought for anyone previously led up the garden path.

    My first irreverent thought on reading the dramatic results of Andy Parrot’s novel Sudoko Control Trial was the trouble heavy ecstasy users would have getting on a horse, let alone bringing their brains to bear on the problem of riding one. A second followed fast – one that I don’t think anyone asked at the time - what overlap is there between keen (‘habitual’ if we are to use statistical terminology) horse riders and habitual ecstasy users - if any?

    But back to the study. Seriously it should be first week reading for all undergraduates starting to university this term; compulsory for the ambitious and for any who see their studies and degree as a route to gainful employment. Perhaps also essential reading matter for the university authorities who seem (at least from what I hear from the students I know) to turn a complete blind eye on weekend student raves.  This is not a point made flippantly. For the ACMD’s report on ecstacy (which recommended its downgrade to a Class B drug ) reported “very little evidence of damage to society, compared with those caused by alcohol use or hard drugs such as heroin”. Although the Labour Government of the time sensibly rejected this move to further legitimise ecstasy use, the damage was done. A government scientific advisory body, (which curiously had neither sought nor heeded the proffered advice of Professor Parrott) had spoken and whether intending to or not gave something of a carte blanche to its use.

    But now, Professor Parrott has engaged in a novel study which turns this upside down. He has assessed twenty (final year undergraduates) recreational Ecstasy/MDMA users (10 male and 10 female, mean age = 21.9), and twenty non-user controls (primarily alcohol drinkers, 10 male and 10 female; mean age = 22.1) recruited to a study of their cognitive performance, 48 hours after weekend dance-clubbing.  He got them all to undertake three cognitive performance tasks: trail-making B, verbal anagrams, and a novel Sudoku problem solving task. Their performance comprised the number of correct completions in a standard time period.

    And what did he find? This:

    The weekend Ecstasy/MDMA polydrug users were significantly impaired on all three tasks:
    • For the trail making completions: controls 84.4, Ecstasy users 69.7 (significant impairment).
    • On the anagram completions: controls 33.0, Ecstasy users 24.8 (significant impairment).
    • Sudoku mean completions: controls 78.9, Ecstasy users 35.3 (significant impairment).

    The greatest percentage impairment was on Sudoku.

    The Ecstasy group he split into two subgroups based on lifetime Ecstasy/MDMA use, and, no surprise, the heavy users showed greater impairments in all three tasks. With Sudoku problem solving, the heavy users completed an average of 21.1 problems.

    As Professor Parrott explains, Sudoku involves memory updating and strategic planning, and seems particularly sensitive to the adverse neurocognitive effects of Ecstasy/MDMA. His findings confirm that weekend Ecstasy/MDMA leads to residual cognitive problems in the days afterwards. In particular, he states, MDMA is counter-indicated in anyone who needs to use their brain for solving problems, strategic planning, or other aspects of thinking and memory.

    Isn’t that everyone who goes to university?

    His research paper is being presented at the Annual Conference on the Psychobiology Section of the British Psychological Society, Low Wood Hotel, Ambleside, United Kingdom. Date: 5th -7th September 2011.

    Kathy Gyngell has a first class honours degree in social anthropology from Cambridge and an Oxford M.Phil. in sociology. She has worked for the former ITV companies, LWT and TV-am as a producer and senior programme executive. A full time mother after the birth of her second son, she founded the voluntary organization Full Time Mothers.

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