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Press Release for MDMA Neurotoxicity Study
Positron emission tomographic evidence of toxic effect of MDMA ('Ecstasy') on brain serotonin neurons in human beings,
by U. D. McCann; Z Szabo; U Scheffel; R.F. Dannals; G. A. Ricaurte
The Lancet Vol 352, Oct 31, 1998, 1437




Brain scans of heavy users of the recreational drug "Ecstasy" have shown changes that may result from brain damage, according to a report in this week's Lancet . Previous studies in animals have found that "Ecstasy", whose chemical name is 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), can damage brain cells that produce an important neurotransmitter called serotonin or 5-HT (5-hydroxytryptamine). MDMA appears to destroy a part of these brain cells called the axons-structures crucial to normal cell function because they transmit nerve signals from one brain cell to another.

Dr U D McCann and colleagues from Baltimore, USA, injected 14 former heavy users of MDMA with a radioactive tracer that binds to a molecule found in the axons of 5-HT neurones called the 5-HT transporter. They then used a brain-scan technique called positron emission tomography (PET) to measure the tracer's uptake in the brain. For comparison, they also studied 15 people who had never used MDMA.The investigators found that compared with the brains of the people who had never taken MDMA, the brains of the former MDMA users had significantly lower tracer uptake. The changes were similar to those found in PET scans of animals with MDMA-induced brain damage, and may indicate the loss of 5-HT neurone axons. Scans tended to be more abnormal in those who had taken the drug more often, and, although some of the MDMA users had not taken the drug for several years, there was no evidence that long abstinence from the drug significantly improved their scans. "Our data suggest that people who use MDMA as a recreational drug may unwittingly be putting themselves at risk of developing brain 5-HT neural injury", write Dr McCann and colleagues. Abnormal serotonin concentrations in the brain have been linked with several psychological conditions, so it is possible that MDMA-induced damage to 5-HT neurons could affect mood and personality. "Potential functional consequences of MDMA-induced brain 5-HT neurotoxic lesions are not clear," write the investigators, "but may include depression, anxiety, memory disturbance, and other neuropsychiatric disorders in which brain 5-HT has been implicated".

Contact Dr George A Ricaurte, Department of Neurology,
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Baltimore, MD, USA,