Ecstasy Causes Long-Term Brain Damage

By Jennifer Matesa 12/14/11

The author of a new study tells The Fix why we shouldn't see the drug as safe.

Ecstasy is more dangerous than some
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Ecstasy can cause long-lasting, possibly permanent brain damage, shows new research—balancing recent reports that the FDA is approving further studies of the therapeutic uses of the rave drug. In a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers at Vanderbilt University conclude that recreational ecstasy use is connected with sustained increases in serotonin receptor density. In other words, after you stop using the drug, you wind up seriously serotonin-depleted and in greater danger of depression.

Serotonin also regulates appetite, sleep, learning, and memory. This damage, which the authors call “chronic serotonin neurotoxicity,” does not appear to decrease with time, study author Ronald L. Cowan, MD, PhD, tells The Fix. MDMA likely produces several changes in the brain, he says, including “actual death” of some nerve cells, and “destruction of some of the serotonin axons.” Cowan tells us he isn’t aware of any evidence that says serotonin receptors “can regrow and reach their original targets once they are lost.” So, that's it.

But if other scientists are using MDMA to treat autism and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), what levels are safe? Cowan says this question needs more research. Animal studies show that two factors control neurotoxicity: blood levels and body temperature. “In animals, if you block the rise in body temperature, you don’t get the toxicity,” he explains. “But if you have kids taking this drug and going out dancing or having sex, these behaviors increase the risk of raising the body temperature.” One of his team's main concerns is that people will hear about studies claiming the drug is effective for PTSD “and think, Oh, this is a safe drug to use,” he says. “There’s a difference between using the drug recreationally and using it therapeutically, at a low dose in a controlled setting.”

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Jennifer Matesa is a Voice Award Fellow at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and is the author of the blog Guinevere Gets Sober. She is the author of several books, including the non-fiction, The Recovering Body, about physical and spiritual fitness for living clean and sober. You can find Jennifer on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.