Ecstacy users may be causing permanent harm to their brains, new research suggests. Investigators of the Vanderbilt University found out that ecstacy – the illegal “rave” drug that produces feelings of euphoria and emotional warmth – is associated with chronic loss of serotonin in the human brain. Serotonin is a vital signalling chemical that helps regulate mood, appetite, sleep, learning and memory. Low levels of the neurotransmitter are associated with depression, sleep disturbance and insomnia.
Ecstasy has been in the news recently as a potential therapeutic. Clinical trials are testing MDMA (Ecstacy’s chemical name) in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. ”It’s essential that we understand the risk associated with using Ecstasy,” said Ronald Cowan, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of Psychiatry. “If news keeps coming out that MDMA is being tested therapeutically and is safe, more people will tend to self-administer the drug. Our studies suggest that if you use Ecstasy recreationally, the more you use, the more brain changes you get.”
The researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) imaging to examine the levels of serotonin-2A receptors in various brain regions in subjects who had previously used Ecstasy (but not in the 90 days prior to imaging) and in subjects who had never used the drug. They found increased levels of serotonin-2A receptors in Ecstasy users, especially in subjects who had used the drug more regularly in their lives. Because previous work has shown gender-specific differences in serotonin receptor levels they only used female participants.
“Our goal is to be able to let people know whether or not the drug is causing long-term brain damage,” Cowan said. “That’s really critical because millions of people are using it.”
Christina R. Di Iorio, EdM; Tristan J. Watkins, BA; Mary S. Dietrich, PhD; Aize Cao, PhD; Jennifer U. Blackford, PhD; Baxter Rogers, PhD; Mohammed S. Ansari, PhD, Ronald M. Baldwin, PhD, Rui Li, MSc, Robert M. Kessler, MD, Ronald M. Salomon, MD, Margaret Benningfield, MD, & Ronald L. Cowan, MD, PhD (2011). Evidence for Chronically Altered Serotonin Function in the Cerebral Cortex of Female 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine Polydrug Users Arch Gen Psychiatry : 10.1001