Brain and Body

New Study Exposes the Neuropsychological Effects of Regular Ecstasy Use on the Brain

April 21, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Ecstasy tablets
Photo credit: US DEA

11 of 14 brain regions showed a troubling response to the drug.

While MDMA has been gaining public attention and stirring up debate over its potential therapeutic benefits, it’s not to be confused with ecstasy.

MDMA is the pure form of the drug, while ecstasy pills can be mixed with a number of other substances. In clinical settings, pure MDMA has been shown to reduce the debilitating symptoms of PTSD, and it could be on its way to an FDA-approval within the next 5 years.

Ecstasy, however, is a much more dangerous substance, and researchers from the University of Liverpool just published new research on how chronic ecstasy use affects different parts of the brain.

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The drug is known to produce feelings of euphoria, love, and calmness, and it’s popular among among electronic music enthusiasts in rave or club settings. These effects are mostly caused by the way the drug stimulates the release of serotonin — a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood — in the brain.  

Now, according to the study findings, which appear in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, the researchers assert that regular use of ecstasy can mess with a user’s serotonin regulation in a number of key brain regions.

Serotonin is a major player in regulating several processes in the brain, including mood, emotions, anxiety, memory, perceptions, sleep, aggression, and appetite.

The researchers conducted an analysis of seven independent studies that used molecular imaging to look at the neuropsychological effect of ecstasy on regular users.

After looking at data from 157 chronic ecstasy users and 148 controls, the researchers found that, in the ecstasy users, 11 out of 14 brain regions showed serotonin transporter (SERT) reductions compared to the controls. To make sure that these results were exclusively linked to ecstasy, the controls included in the analysis had used other drugs but had never tried ecstasy.

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The researchers found that this serotonin-depletion effect was most pronounced in regions like the temporal cortex, frontal cortex, and parietal cortex, which are all found in the neocortex — a brain region involved in higher cognitive functions like conscious thought and sensory perception.

This reduction in serotonin transportation can have a strong impact on the individual’s regulation of appropriate emotional reactions to situations.

“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,” Carl Roberts, one of the principal researchers on the study, ​said in a press statement. “Furthermore the observed effects on the serotonin system inferred from the current analysis, may underpin the cognitive deficits observed in ecstasy users.”

However, the researchers admit that the “clinical significance of these findings is speculative,” because it’s possible that the serotonin transportation in the brain would return to normal after chronic ecstasy users stop taking the drug.

Nonetheless, “the study provides us with a platform for further research into the effect long term chronic ecstasy use can have on brain function,” concludes Roberts.

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