Brain and Body

How Did Taking Ecstasy Affect Your Brain? Hair Samples Reveal All

October 23, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Ecstasy tablets, pills.
Photo credit: DEA, US

Ecstasy users be warned: a new study of hair samples reveals MDMA’s effects on stress levels and memory performance.

For the first time, researchers looked at hair samples to determine how MDMA affects stress. It’s no surprise that ecstasy and molly, a newer version of crystallized MDMA, have long-term effects on the brain, but the extent to which the brain changes in comparison to non-ecstasy users may surprise you — even light ecstasy users had significantly higher stress levels than nonusers.

Even months after indulging in the drug, hair samples can reveal how stress levels have been affected by measuring the amount of cortisol in someone’s body. A previous way of looking at cortisol levels was to sample saliva, but the problem with saliva tests is that they need to be taken immediately to detect the extent of stress. Looking at hair samples provides much more comprehensive data.

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“Cortisol is a stress hormone that we all produce in our bodies and interestingly it is deposited in our hair. Looking at cortisol in hair is a way for us to see how stressed we’ve been in the past,” said lead researcher Luke Downey from Swinburne University of Technology in Australia.

Over 100 participants agreed to be a part of the study — 51 non-ecstasy users, 27 light users, and 23 heavy users. Light users were defined as people who had taken ecstasy one to four times in the past three months, and heavy users were those who had taken in five or more times in the same timeframe.

The researchers analyzed 3 cm of hair (hair grows about 1 cm per month) and found that the cortisol levels of light ecstasy users were 50 percent higher than nonusers, and heavy users displayed levels that were even four times higher than light users. For the first time, researchers were able to retrospectively measure stress levels based on MDMA use, and the results indicate they increased significantly.

In an area unrelated to stress but just as pressing, the researchers also looked at the participants’ memory performance. Not only did the ecstasy users report significantly more retrospective and prospective memory problems, but they performed worse in word recall tests than non-ecstasy users. But the extent to which their memories were impaired had no correlation to the increased cortisol levels, so the two issues caused by MDMA use remain unlinked.

Whether it be higher levels of stress or worse memory performance, the effects of ecstasy on the brain aren’t pretty. MDMA lovers must weigh the outcomes — is a few hours of temporary euphoria worth the potential long-term brain damage and spikes in stress?

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