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24 September 2014
Science & Nature: TV & Radio Follow-upScience & Nature
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Ecstasy & Agony
BBC2 9.00pm Thursday 15th February 2001

Tim Lawrence seems able to regain mobility using Ecstasy Tim Lawrence was a film stuntman, appearing in Braveheart and London's Burning. But at the age of 34 Tim was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease - an illness usually associated with the elderly.

Tim now spends much of his time either frozen and unable to move, or twitching uncontrollably. There is, however one thing that relieves Tim's symptoms, one that challenges the medical community. The trouble is it involves an illegal and dangerous street drug - Ecstasy.

Horizon follows the story of how Tim's inadvertent discovery is brought to the attention of medical scientists, and is now being studied in the hope of producing a new treatment for Parkinson's Disease (PD).

Parkinson's Disease is caused by the loss of a brain chemical called dopamine, which is vital for movement. The result in Tim is the slow freezing up of his body. But, like many people who contract the illness early in life, Tim suffers just as badly from the drug he takes to combat the disease, which gives him wild, flailing movements called dyskinesias. These are the devastating side-effects of L-DOPA, the drug he is prescribed to unlock his frozen limbs.

However, within 90 minutes of taking an Ecstasy tablet, Tim is able to get off the floor and perform backflips, somersaults and swallow-dives in a gym. The trouble is, of course, that Ecstasy is dangerous and illegal - a Class A drug deemed of no therapeutic value.

The transformation is astonishing, but brain scans at Hammersmith Hospital reveal no changes in the dopamine levels in Tim's brain. Meanwhile in Manchester a pair of scientists have long been studying ways of treating PD that do not involve dopamine. Their theory suggests that another brain chemical, serotonin may be involved. This ties in with Tim's experience as the main action of Ecstasy in the brain is to release massive amounts of serotonin.

The scientists are sceptical and put forward the possibility that Tim's experience may be due to 'placebo effect' - that his belief in the pill working is strong enough to make it happen. The dramatic climax to Tim's journey comes when he undergoes a two-day trial - on one day he takes a simple pill, on the other day Ecstasy. On neither day did Tim, or the film crew, know which he had taken. Comparison of the two days shows an amazing difference. When Tim takes Ecstasy his movement is measurably smoother and more fluid, with none of the dyskinesias he normally suffers.

Although this effect has only been demonstrated in one individual, the scientists agree that it is the best result they have ever seen in the treatment of PD, and that it is worthy of investigation. It could be that Tim's extraordinary chance discovery will be a clue towards a new treatment for Parkinson's Disease.

Nevertheless, no one is suggesting that Parkinson's patients should experiment with Ecstasy - indeed, it must be emphasised that Ecstasy might be particularly damaging to those with Parkinson's.

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