Ecstasy Can Harm The Brains Of First-Time Users
Medical News Today, November 30, 2006
Researchers have discovered that even a small amount of
MDMA, better known as ecstasy, can be harmful to the
brain, according to the first study to look at the
neurotoxic effects of low doses of the recreational drug
in new ecstasy users. The findings were presented at the
annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North
"We found a decrease in blood circulation in some areas
of the brain in young adults who just started to use
ecstasy," said Maartje de Win, M.D., radiology resident
at the Academic Medical Center at the University of
Amsterdam in the Netherlands. "In addition, we found a
relative decrease in verbal memory performance in
ecstasy users compared to non-users."
Ecstasy is an illegal drug that acts as a stimulant and
psychedelic. A 2004 survey by the National Institute on
Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that 450,000 people in the
United States age 12 and over had used ecstasy in the
past 30 days. In 2005, NIDA estimated that 5.4 percent
of all American 12th graders had taken the drug at least
Ecstasy targets neurons in the brain that use the
chemical serotonin to communicate. Serotonin plays an
important role in regulating a number of mental
processes including mood and memory.
Research has shown that long-term or heavy ecstasy use
can damage these neurons and cause depression, anxiety,
confusion, difficulty sleeping and decrease in memory.
However, no previous studies have looked at the effects
of low doses of the drug on first-time users.
Dr. de Win and colleagues examined 188 volunteers with
no history of ecstasy use but at high-risk for
first-time ecstasy use in the near future. The
examinations included neuroimaging techniques to measure
the integrity of cells and blood flow in different areas
of the brain and various psychological tests. After 18
months, 59 first-time ecstasy users who had taken six
tablets on average and 56 non-users were re-examined
with the same techniques and tests.
The study found that low doses of ecstasy did not
severely damage the serotonergic neurons or affect mood.
However, there were indications of subtle changes in
cell architecture and decreased blood flow in some brain
regions, suggesting prolonged effects from the drug,
including some cell damage. In addition, the results
showed a decrease in verbal memory performance among
low-dose ecstasy users compared to non-users.
"We do not know if these effects are transient or
permanent," Dr. de Win said. "Therefore, we cannot
conclude that ecstasy, even in small doses, is safe for
the brain, and people should be informed of this risk."
This research is part of the Netherlands XTC Toxicity
(NeXT) study, which also looks at high-dose ecstasy
users and aims to provide information on long-term
effects of ecstasy use in the general population.
Co-authors are Gerard J. Den Heeten, M.D., Ph.D., Gerry
Jager, M.S., Liesbeth Reneman, M.D., T. Schilt, M.S.,
Jan Booij, M.D., Ph.D., C. Lavini, D.Phil., and Win van
den Brink, M.D., Ph.D.
RSNA is an association of more than 40,000 radiologists,
radiation oncologists, medical physicists and related
scientists committed to promoting excellence in
radiology through education and by fostering research,
with the ultimate goal of improving patient care. The
Society is based in Oak Brook, Ill.
The data in these releases may differ from those in the
printed abstract and those actually presented at the
meeting, as researchers continue to update their data
right up until the meeting.
Contact: Maureen Morley
Radiological Society of North America