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Ecstasy and depression

What goes up must come down, but for how long? Users who take ecstasy experience elevated moods, but in the months afterwards some people can become much less shiny and happy. Can taking ecstasy really cause depression?

What does ecstasy do to the brain?                     

Ecstasy works by stimulating the production of a brain chemical called serotonin, key in the regulation of mood and emotion. The rush you get comes from the release of much higher levels of serotonin than normal. But by artificially messing with this production process, some scientists believe users are diminishing their brain's ability to produce serotonin in the future.

Does ecstasy really cause depression?

Ecstasy works by changing the way the brain produces and handles the neurotransmitter serotonin that, among other things, regulates your mood. 

"Experts agree that once the initial serotonin rush produced by the drug (the 'high') has passed, levels of serotonin in the brain will fall," says Ruth Goldsmith from the independent drug information and expertise centre DrugScope. "This seems to account for the 'mid-week hangover' or 'Tuesday blues'; the short period of depression experienced by many ecstasy users in the days following their use of the drug." 

What do ecstasy users say?

"I only used ecstasy occasionally at festivals and special occasions and I loved the 'clean' high it gave me," says Emma, 24. "After my first 12 months using, pills had become so cheap I began to choose ecstasy over alcohol on a weekly basis. After a couple of months the mid-week blues were so crippling I felt suicidal and couldn't lift myself out of these moods without drugs. It was like living in an eternal comedown."

22 year-old Sam had a completely different experience, however. "I didn't really experience bad comedowns when I used to take ecstasy, just those chilled duvet days where I lazed and recovered but felt pretty nice," he says. "Since quitting I'm still the usual happy chappy and certainly not depressed."

After a couple of months the mid-week blues were so crippling I felt suicidal and couldn't lift myself out of these moods without drugs.

Is there any research to suggest ecstasy affects mental health?

A 2005 Cambridge University study discovered that people with a certain genetic make-up showed greater signs of depression after using the drug. The Cambridge team looked at the gene which controls serotonin transporters in the brain. Everybody has two copies of each gene, and there are two possible versions which people can carry, so they can either be classed as ll, ls or ss. They found that 60% of people who had the ss version were assessed as having at least mild depression after taking ecstasy, while non-drug users with the ss type displayed no such problems.

It isn't quite so cut and dry though, for there is some evidence that people with the ss genotype have more family members who are depressed. They have also been associated with depression in response to stressful life events, such as losing a family member or a job. It could be that ecstasy use is simply another type of stressor.

Girl looking depressed

Users can feel tired and depressed

There are also several studies that suggest that those with depression are more likely to take ecstasy in the first place and it is this issue of dual diagnosis that makes it so difficult to draw any consistent conclusions in the ecstasy and depression debate.

What's the conclusion?

There are many scary stories associated with ecstasy's effects on the brain and unfortunately we just don't know what the truth is. "Although we know that ecstasy use depletes the brain's serotonin levels in the short term, as yet there is no conclusive evidence proving that ecstasy causes depression in the long term," says DrugScope's Ruth Goldsmith. "Most people who took ecstasy when the drug first became popular on the UK scene in the 1990s are only now reaching their 30s and 40s - so more research is needed to assess the drug's long-term mental health impact on the first 'E generation'." 

With thanks to DrugScope for help compiling this article.

Updated: 12/04/2010

Written by Susie Wild

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