Ecstasy and brain damage
It has been suggested that using ecstasy causes brain damage, but how true are these claims and are the problems reversible?
Why do people think that ecstasy use may cause brain damage?
Ecstasy interferes with the neurotransmitter that produces serotonin, the brain chemical that helps to regulate mood, memory, sleep, libido, appetite and temperature. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, based in the USA, ran a high-profile anti-ecstasy campaign suggesting that pill popping caused actual, physical holes in the brain. However it was later revealed that the scans were only looking for serotonin levels and weren't bona fide 'brain scans'.
While it may have stirred up plenty of furore and confusion in the press about the effects of taking ecstasy on the brain, we're interested in facts. The problem is that despite years of research on the effects of ecstasy on the brain the findings are still pretty ambiguous. The most consistent results, however, appear to suggest that MDMA, the active chemical in ecstasy, causes slight impairment on tasks of episodic memory and verbal learning.
What do the experts say?
Professor Val Curran, Professor of Psychopharmacology at University College London, has been researching the effects of ecstasy on the brain for the last decade. We caught up with her to find out the truth about the damage ecstasy can do to the brain.
How does ecstasy use affect the brain and memory in the short and long term?
"In the short term, ecstasy promotes a massive release of serotonin in the brain alongside a release of other brain chemicals, like dopamine. In humans, memory is significantly impaired two to three hours after taking the drug but six hours later these impairments are no longer evident.
Ecstasy promotes a massive release of serotonin in the brain alongside a release of other brain chemicals, like dopamine.
"In the long term, there is still a lot of debate about effects on the brain and memory. Studies in monkeys have suggested long-lasting reduction in brain serotonin even seven years after a few doses. However, the doses used in these studies were injected and were very high compared with doses humans take.
"Little evidence of any change in memory or behaviour is seen in these monkeys. Humans generally take other drugs as well as ecstasy, including drugs like cannabis and alcohol, which also impair memory. This makes it difficult to know what effects are caused by which drugs."
Ecstasy is often taken with other drugs
Is any damage caused reversible?
"Several brain imaging studies suggest the answer to this question is yes. After not using ecstasy for 12 months, there is no difference in serotonin in the brains of people who used to use ecstasy, compared with people who used other recreational drugs such as cannabis, alcohol and coke, but not ecstasy. Newer studies (by Hoshi et al, 2007 and Roiser et al 2007) indicate that there is little, if any, evidence that the memory function in ex-ecstasy users differs from those who used these kinds of drugs but not ecstasy."
So what's the conclusion?
As always, we can not know what future research may reveal. It has been suggested that future studies examining the brains of ecstasy users' age may reveal other effects that are not reversible. Recent research (by Hoshi et al) also implies that our genetic make-up influences the extent to which each individual's serotonin is affected by MDMA, and thus how great or small the short-term impairment is to our brain functions and memory.
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