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Recreational use of Ecstasy linked to chronic brain changes

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Vanderbilt  study suggests Ecstasy has long-term effects on the brain.

Vanderbilt University researchers are studying Ecstasy effects on the brain. New findings show Ecstasy, or MDMA, causes loss of serotonin in the brain – an important chemical that controls mood, appetite, sleep, learning and memory.

According to Ronald Cowan, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of Psychiatry, the study is important. MDMA is being studied for treatment of PTSD and anxiety associated with cancer.

For their study, the Vanderbilt researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) imaging to examine serotonin-2A receptor levels in various brain regions. They compared the findings to non-Ecstasy users and people who had used the drug in the past, but not for 90 days prior to the imaging.

The Ecstasy users had higher levels of serotonin 2-A receptors. Researchers aren’t certain, but some animal studies have suggested serotonin receptors in the brain may increase to compensate for low levels of the chemical. More frequent use of the drug was associated with even higher numbers of the receptors.

Ecstasy and serotonin function

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The current study, combined with findings from Dr. Cowan earlier this year that showed Ecstasy was associated with loss of brain efficiency in 3 areas related to visual processing, suggest the drug could lead to lasting changes in serotonin function.

Symptoms of low serotonin levels include fatigue, depression, irritability and poor memory. According to the National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health – low serotonin levels can cause complex mental disorders.

Cowan says “It’s really critical to know whether or not this drug is causing long-term brain damage because millions of people are using it.”. The findings are published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Cowan’s team hopes to find out what dose of Ecstasy is toxic. If the drug has any therapeutic benefits, he says it will be important to know risks associated with the drug. The new study suggests there may be long-term brain changes associated with the “rave” drug.

Arch Gen Psychiatry: doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.156
"Evidence for Chronically Altered Serotonin Function in the Cerebral Cortex of Female 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine Polydrug Users"
hristina R. Di Iorio et al.
December 5, 2011

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