Of all recreational drugs, ecstasy is arguably the most controversial, with experts varying wildly in their opinions over the dangers it poses. The drug’s active ingredient, MDMA, was once described by a prominent neuroscientist as no more dangerous than horse riding, while various studies have indicated that long-term use may not be as harmful as the popular media makes out. However, a recent review into the available scientific literature on the drug has revealed that heavy use may in fact cause some pretty alarming effects.
Popular among dance music enthusiasts, ecstasy is known to produce euphoric feelings while also giving loved-up users an energy boost. These effects are mostly caused by the way in which MDMA stimulates the brain to release serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood. According to the new study, which appears in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, persistent use of ecstasy can leave a person’s serotonin levels out of whack in several key regions of the brain.
Serotonin is primarily produced in a brain region known as the raphe nucleus, and finds its way around the brain by traveling across the gaps between nerve cells, known as synapses. When this occurs, these nerve cells become stimulated, leading to a range of subjective effects related to a person’s mood.
Any unused serotonin is then sucked back up by proteins called serotonin transporters, which carry it back across the synapse so that it can be used again. When these transporters become depleted, less serotonin can be recycled, meaning less is then available for essential neurological processes.
To test how ecstasy affects serotonin transporter numbers, the researchers looked at a collection of existing studies that had conducted molecular imaging of serotonin transporters in the brains of regular ecstasy users. They then compared these to similar studies involving people who used other drugs but had never tried MDMA, in order to be sure that the results could be attributed exclusively to the use of ecstasy.
Results showed that, among ecstasy users, serotonin transporters were depleted in 11 of the 14 brain areas examined in these studies. This effect was most pronounced in regions such as the frontal cortex, parietal cortex and temporal cortex, all of which are found in the neocortex, a part of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions like conscious thought.
Similar serotonin depletions were found in the limbic system, which controls basic emotions and instincts.
Commenting on these findings, the researchers conclude that “it is conceivable that the observed effects on serotonin neurons contribute to mood changes associated with ecstasy/MDMA use, as well as other psychobiological changes. Furthermore the observed effects on the serotonin system inferred from the current analysis, may underpin the cognitive deficits observed in ecstasy users.”
However, they also concede that these findings are “speculative,” particularly since previous studies have suggested that serotonin levels may return to normal once regular ecstasy takers stop using the drug.