Ecstasy drug users may be causing chronic long-lasting damage to their brain, a new study has warned.
According to the study, the illegal ‘rave’ drug that produces feelings of euphoria and emotional warmth is responsible for long-term serotonin neurotoxicity in humans.
“Our study provides some of the strongest evidence to date that the drug causes chronic loss of serotonin in humans,” said Ronald Cowan, associate professor of Psychiatry.
The neurotransmitter serotonin, a critical signaling molecule, has roles in regulating mood, appetite, sleep, learning and memory.
The current study is important, Cowan said, because MDMA (Ecstasy’s chemical name) may have therapeutic benefits and is now being tested as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety associated with cancer.
“It’s essential that we understand the risk associated with using Ecstasy.”
“If news keeps coming out that MDMA is being tested therapeutically and is safe, more people will tend to self-administer the drug. We need to know the dose at which this drug becomes toxic.”
“Our studies suggest that if you use Ecstasy recreationally, the more you use, the more brain changes you get.”
In the current study, Cowan and colleagues used positron emission tomography (PET) imaging to examine the levels of serotonin-2A receptors in various brain regions, in females who had used Ecstasy (but not in the 90 days prior to imaging) and in females who had never used the drug. They limited their studies to females because previous work has shown gender-specific differences in serotonin receptor levels.
They found that Ecstasy users had increased levels of serotonin-2A receptors and that higher lifetime use of the drug (higher doses) correlated with higher serotonin receptor levels.
Cowan asserted that the findings are consistent with some studies in animal models, with receptor levels increasing to compensate for the loss of serotonin.
“It”s really critical to know whether or not this drug is causing long-term brain damage because millions of people are using it,” he added.