||NIDA News Release
|FOR RELEASE, June 14, 1999
||Contact: Beverly Jackson|
Long-Term Brain Injury From Use of "Ecstasy"
The designer drug "Ecstasy," or MDMA, causes long-lasting damage to
brain areas that are critical for thought and memory, according to new
research findings in the June 15 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. In
an experiment with red squirrel monkeys, researchers at The Johns Hopkins
University demonstrated that 4 days of exposure to the drug caused damage
that persisted 6 to 7 years later. These findings help to validate
previous research by the Hopkins team in humans, showing that people who
had taken MDMA scored lower on memory tests.
"The serotonin system, which is compromised by MDMA, is fundamental to
the brain's integration of information and emotion," says Dr. Alan I.
Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National
Institutes of Health, which funded the research. "At the very least,
people who take MDMA, even just a few times, are risking long-term,
perhaps permanent, problems with learning and memory."
The researchers found that the nerve cells (neurons) damaged by MDMA
are those that use the chemical serotonin to communicate with other
neurons. The Hopkins team had also previously conducted brain imaging
research in human MDMA users, in collaboration with the National Institute
of Mental Health, which showed extensive damage to serotonin neurons.
MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) has a stimulant effect,
causing similar euphoria and increased alertness as cocaine and
amphetamine. It also causes mescaline-like psychedelic effects. First used
in the 1980s, MDMA is often taken at large, all-night "rave" parties.
In this new study, the Hopkins researchers administered either MDMA or
salt water to the monkeys twice a day for 4 days. After 2 weeks, the
scientists examined the brains of half of the monkeys. Then, after 6 to 7
years, the brains of the remaining monkeys were examined, along with
In the brains of the monkeys examined soon after the 2-week period, Dr.
George Ricaurte and his colleagues found that MDMA caused more damage to
serotonin neurons in some parts of the brain than in others. Areas
particularly affected were the neocortex (the outer part of the brain
where conscious thought occurs) and the hippocampus (which plays a key
role in forming long-term memories).
This damage was also apparent, although to a lesser extent, in the
brains of monkeys who had received MDMA during the same 2-week period but
who had received no MDMA for 6 to 7 years. In contrast, no damage was
noticeable in the brains of those who had received salt water. "Some
recovery of serotonin neurons was apparent in the brains of the monkeys
given MDMA 6 to 7 years previously," says
Dr. Ricaurte, "but this recovery occurred only in certain regions, and
was not always complete. Other brain regions showed no evidence of
Other authors of the study are Dr. George Hatzidimitriou and Dr. Una
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