Spotted: Exploring ecstasy; enforcing ethics

Ecstasy may ease social anxiety in autism, and ethical lapses reveal dangerous gaps in medical research oversight.

By Katie Moisse
29 May 2015 | 3 min read
This article is more than five years old.
Neuroscience—and science in general—is constantly evolving, so older articles may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.
  • Researchers are investigating whether MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy, can ease social anxiety in people with autism. The psychoactive drug is famous for eliciting warm, fuzzy feelings. And anecdotal reports from people on the spectrum suggest it can make social interactions less stressful and more fun. News of the trial, which started a year ago in Los Angeles, went viral this week. Researchers plan to test the drug in eight adults with autism — under strict supervision.
  • A scathing op-ed about a string of scandals at the University of Minnesota highlights harrowing holes in the oversight of medical research. Carl Elliot, professor of bioethics at the university, argues that the committees tasked with protecting people who participate in medical research put too much trust in researchers, some of whom may have conflicting interests. “Imagine if inspectors never actually set foot in meatpacking plants or coal mines, but gave approvals based entirely on paperwork filled out by the owners,” Elliot wrote in the op-ed in Tuesday’s New York Times. Those committees, called institutional review boards, “should be replaced with oversight bodies that are fully independent — both financially and institutionally — of the research they are overseeing,” Elliot wrote.
  • An editorial published last week in Nature Neuroscience highlights the threat that radical animal activists poseto progress in brain research. Nikos Logothetis, director at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, is the latest victim of intimidation. He announced his plans to abandon his research on neural networks in rhesus macaques last month, citing a lack of support from the scientific community to crack down on animal activists who target researchers. Since then, more than 4,700 people have signed a motion for solidarity against “fundamentalist fury.”
  • Michigan officials held a public hearing Wednesday about the merits of medical marijuana for autism. The state approved the drug for cancer, epilepsy and a handful of other conditions back in 2008, but five years later, voted against adding autism to the list. A story about the highly anticipated hearing, reported last week by the Associated Press (AP), describes how daily doses of cannabis oil ease symptoms of autism and epilepsy in 6-year-old Noah Smith. “I know parents who are desperate,” Noah’s mom, Lisa Smith, told the AP. “A lot of children with autism don’t have another qualifying condition like Noah does with epilepsy.”
  • A tool that helps researchers track their grants and publications now helps them chart and publicize their participation in the peer review process. The new service comes from ORCID, a social network that connects researchers and helps them share their accomplishments. “Peer review is an essential component of the research and scholarly lifecycle. And yet, researcher peer review activities are rarely acknowledged as a fundamental contribution to research,” wrote Laure Haak, executive director of ORCID, in a blog post. “We call on all organizations that use peer review — publishers, funders, associations, universities — to enable their referees to get proper credit for the work they do.”