Long-Term Use of Ecstasy Linked to Brain Damage
The study is significant because ecstasy is being tested as a way to help patients with posttraumatic stress syndrome and anxiety associated with cancer.
Ecstasy is a substance usually sold in pill form at night clubs and parties. Its chemical designation is MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine). It produces feelings of peace, increased intimacy among people, euphoria, and mild intoxication, and it is used in social settings in a similar way to alcohol -- as a "social lubricant." The main dangers of using ecstasy so far have been identified as fatal drug interactions that combine ecstasy with other drugs, most often stimulants, or death from hypothermia, a condition resulting from elevated body temperature. It is also possible to develop a psychological dependency on ecstasy.
Ecstasy, along with certain psychedelic drugs, is being tested as a way to help cancer patients and people with posttraumatic stress deal with their fears and anxieties. In some cases, just one experience with these drugs "opened depressed people up" to a new way of thinking. As David Nichols of Purdue University put it, "the drugs diffuse in your brain and some people never see the world the same way again."
For the new research, Dr. Ronald Cowan and his colleagues studied 24 women, average age 22 years old, who had taken ecstasy for three to four years. The number of pills the subjects took ranged from five to 375. All participants were asked to abstain from drugs for three months before the study, and one woman was disqualified after she failed a drug test for cocaine.
The research team used PET scans (positron emission tomography) to determine the levels of serotonin receptors in each subject's brain. When serotonin levels go down, the receptor levels go up. Those women who had a history of taking ecstasy had higher levels of receptors than those did not take the drug. The more ecstasy a woman had taken in her lifetime , the higher her receptor levels and the less serotonin in her brain.
"We do not actually know what the implications are," said Dr. Cowan. "There is some evidence in prior research that a drop in serotonin levels leads to sleep apnea, depression, anxiety, and memory loss, but in our work we did not find evidence of mental health issues, no increased anxiety, impulsivity or depression, and the IQs of the women who took the drug were identical of those who had never taken it."
Dr. Cowan also acknowledged that he did not know if the drop in serotonin levels was permanent. He said his team had accounted for other factors, such as the use of birth control, estrogen levels, and age, which can affect serotonin receptors. The study does not apply to men or to anyone suffering from anxiety disorders or depression.
"Animal studies have indicated that could be as much of a seven-year duration in such dips but we do not know. So this work raises serious concerns and questions, but more research is needed," Dr. Cowan said during his comments on the study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
Ecstasy is almost universally illegal in every part of the world, including the United States.