Ecstasy is a popular drug that has gotten most of its press due to its association with raves and is said to produce feelings of euphoria and emotional warmth; but as researchers at Vanderbilt University have discovered it is also associated with chronic changes in the human brain.
Reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry on December 5 by associate professor Ronald Cowan M.D., Ph.D. there is increasing evidence that ecstasy produces long-lasting serotonin neurotoxicity in the human brain.
This is important because serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a critical signaling molecule, that affects the regulating of our moods, appetite, sleep, learning, and our memory. Part of the reason for the importance of this study is that ecstasy can also have some major therapeutic uses.
Because of this and people’s tendencies to self-medicate doctor’s need to understand the different effects of the drug at different levels of usage and at what point the danger of toxicity begin.
The study that was conducted was restricted to females because previous work showed that there are some real differences gender-wise when it comes to 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. The findings are consistent with some studies in animal models, with receptor levels increasing to compensate for the loss of serotonin, Cowan said.
Cowan and colleagues reported earlier this year that Ecstasy increased brain activation in three brain areas associated with visual processing, which suggested a loss in brain efficiency. Together, the two studies provide compelling evidence that Ecstasy causes lasting changes in brain serotonin function, Cowan said.
The 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that 15.9 million people 12 years or older in the United States have used ecstasy in their lifetime.