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Even light weekend use of the party drug Ecstasy might harm intelligence, a new study suggests

The Associated Press
by Emma Ross
May 16, 2000

Impaired cognitive performance in drug free users of recreational ecstasy (MDMA),
by E. Gouzoulis-Mayfrank; J. Daumann; F. Tuchtenhagen; S. Pelz; S. Becker; H.J. Kunert; B. Fimm; H. Sass
Journal Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry Vol 68, June 2000, 719-725

LONDON (AP) - German scientists report that weeks after partying, those who used Ecstasy along with marijuana performed worse on intelligence tests than people who just smoked pot or took no drugs at all. Their results are reported this week in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

Ecstasy, chemically known as MDMA, has been popular among young clubgoers in Europe for years but recently has become increasingly widespread in the United States.

Previous studies have suggested the drug can cause a long-term decrease in a brain chemical involved with thought and memory. Other research has indicated Ecstasy can impair brain function, but mostly investigated people who used it more often or with other drugs.

The latest research, by scientists at the University of Aachen in Germany, also assessed a broader range of cognitive functions than any other study to date.

Alan Leschner, director of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, said the study provides the first clear demonstration of what was predicted from earlier studies linking the drug to changes in the brain.

"If your brain is getting zinged, then you ought to have some kind of deficit in cognitive ability, and here it is,'' Leschner said. "There is this misconception that it's a benign, fun drug, and it's not.''

The study involved 28 Ecstasy users in their mid-20s recruited off the dance floor of a nightclub. They also were pot smokers, but did not get drunk often and did not regularly take other drugs.

"Because almost every Ecstasy user smokes cannabis, it was impossible to recruit a reasonable number of exclusive Ecstasy users,'' the study said.

The researchers therefore compared the group to two others of the same size, age range and education level - one consisting of drug-free people and another of people who smoked about as much pot as the Ecstasy group but did not take any other drug.

Ecstasy users abstained for about three weeks and everybody in the study passed urine tests for traces of other drugs.

The subjects were given general knowledge tests to make sure one group was not naturally more intelligent than the other. They then spent three hours taking psychological tests that evaluated everything from immediate memory to logical thinking.

The Ecstasy group performed just as well as the other two on simple tests of alertness, but worse in more complex tasks of attention, in memory and learning tests, and in tasks reflecting aspects of general intelligence.

The more Ecstasy they used, the worse they performed on the tests, but their scores still were in the "normal'' range.

Those who only smoked pot performed no differently than those who were drug-free.

"These were not heavy Ecstasy users. On average, they took four tablets a month - that's one every weekend,'' said Dr. Euphrosyne Gouzoulis-Mayfrank, the neurologist who led the study.

Jim O'Callaghan, a neurotoxicologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said that even though the study showed worse test scores for Ecstasy users, that would not matter if the effect of the drug was only temporary.

"It's not evidence that brain damage has occurred, that it's not reversible or that the lower intelligence wasn't there to begin with,'' he said.

Because it is illegal, it is difficult to measure how widely Ecstasy is used. But a 1998 survey by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse found that an estimated 1.5 percent of Americans 12 years old or older, or 3.4 million people, had used it at least once.

Ecstasy users report the drug can break down barriers and make people trust each other.

Copyright 2000 The Associated Press.