Parkinson’s is a disease without a cure, a condition in which the brain steadily ceases the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter essential to controlling movement. Drugs can curb its symptoms—trembling, rigidity, slowed movement, difficulty with balance and gait—but only for a while. Recently, Duke University biochemists working with mice stumbled upon a promising treatment. Officially, it is called 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine. On the street it is known as Ecstasy.
A team led by Marc Caron used the illegal drug in a study to determine whether the brain produces chemicals other than dopamine to control movement. They created a special strain of mice that could be stripped of dopamine and injected with different classes of compounds to try to restore movement. Eventually, the researchers hit upon one class that did—amphetamines. Of these, Ecstasy worked best—almost as well as L-dopa, the side-effect-prone drug commonly used by Parkinson’s patients to replenish dopamine.
Still, the concentrations of Ecstasy needed to restore function were high—dangerous because some research suggests amphetamines damage the brain. So the team combined Ecstasy with L-dopa and found that they needed much smaller amounts—one-thirtieth to one-twentieth as much—to make symptoms disappear. “We’re not advocating that parkinsonian patients go out on the street and try to get some amphetamines,” Caron says. But now that he’s shown that movement isn’t solely dopamine dependent, he hopes to understand how Ecstasy works. That in turn could lead to the development of new drugs with fewer side effects and less of a social stigma, he says. “There may be things out there that don’t have the bad rap of Ecstasy.”