Wednesday 14 January 2009

Using the brains of people on anti-malarial drugs

The ecstatic measures for reliving trauma

I was reading in the bumper Christmas edition of the Economist [1] that Ecstasy [2] (methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA) is being used to treat Posttraumatic Stress Disorder [3] (PTSD).

Generally, the idea is that people suffering from the disorder under therapy probably have to recollect and go over the causative issues; Ecstasy supposedly suppresses the effects of going over the experiences, hence helping in the amelioration of the disorder towards recovery.

Anti-malarial woes

In conversation with my dad yesterday, I learnt that he had just recovered from a bout of malaria which seemed to have knocked him out for days.

However, in our shared experiences with malaria, the chat moved to the use of anti-malarial drugs the most common type being Chloroquine [4] -based compounds. Nivaquine [5], a trademark drug was probably the bitterest thing I had ever tasted on earth but until I was 10 years old, I did not have any contra-indications to the drug.

My father never had side-effects to the drug but my mother was a classic case of where the doctor should sometimes listen to the patient – she did say she could not tolerate Chloroquine but in his bedside manner prescribed the drug with some other palliative drug to deal with the preconceived side-effects.

Within hours, my mum was in a critical allergic state, all swollen and bloated, the doctor had to call on some reserves of deep knowledge to sort the problem out.

Brain affects from side effects

By the time I was 11, each time I took Nivaquine, my soles and palms itched relentlessly, I could have sworn it was better to suffer pain than to be sentenced to the itch, with time this was treated with an antihistamine until an alternative drug was available for prescription.

This was Fansidar [6] but it came with its own side effects that when I did self-medicate in Nigeria, I took my anti-malarials with an analgesic to manage the headaches, an anti-histamine to manage the itch and a sedative to get some sleep.

The common side-effect experience I shared with my dad was that these drugs increase brain activity to the extent that one is unable to sleep.

My brain began the complex geometric analysis of lines and their relationships in 3-dimensional space; the capacity for the management of that information was just phenomenal. My dad found that he was managing sectors of circles usually up to 30 sectors and rearranging these sectors whilst fitting polygons in the available spaces.

We both wished the brain activity were devoted to some activity aligned to the work we do which might then be of some serious benefit.

Meanwhile, another good friend I spoke to yesterday had just returned home from Nigeria and was also knocked out by malaria but it seemed what it did the most was realign his body-clock such that he became a diurnal sleeper rather than the normal nocturnal sleeper.

Using a hyper-active brain for research

Just like in the use of Ecstasy, there should be some benefit to harnessing the brain activity in these side effects. Just as computers are linked up in tandem to solve problems or discover patterns for protein analysis or extraterrestrial intelligence, maybe, just maybe when the brain is enduring this high capacity information manipulation it could be inspired or injected with some intractable problem and all that processing offers amazing and ingenious solutions that sober minds cannot begin to fathom.

Obviously, this is one area of testing that would definitely not work with conventional animal testing and so beyond the ethical issues of the administration of these drugs and the modalities for finding suitable guinea-pigs for this experiment which can be conducted along the lines and strictures of semen or egg donors, there might just be some benefit for mankind.

Bizarre research

The question then becomes whether this area of research should be based in malaria ridden countries where we harness the brain power of recuperating sufferers or it be based in established research centres where people are administered the drug to create the side effects in better managed conditions.

Bizarre as it sounds, I think this is one area of research worth looking at, through the pain and discomfort there might well be a yet undiscovered treasure trove of human ability behind the veil of the therapeutic or the prophylactic management of malaria.


[1] Agony and ecstasy | Agony and ecstasy | The Economist

[2] Methylenedioxymethamphetamine - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[3] Posttraumatic stress disorder - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[4] Chloroquine - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[5] Nivaquine –

[6] Fansidar (discontinued in the UK - January 2008)

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