The popular club drug Ecstasy causes temporary injury to brain cells, but the result is long-term damage to memory, Dutch researchers said Sunday.
Memory tests and brain scans performed on 22 subjects who had recently used Ecstasy revealed they suffered memory deficiencies and changes in certain brain cells.
The scans showed the damage was most pronounced on cortical neurons linked to memory function. In Ecstasy users, those brain cells had a decreased density of receptors for the neurotransmitter serotonin, which transports messages between cells and is known to affect mood.
Previous research has suggested that Ecstasy causes a flood of serotonin in the brain, followed by a drop-off when the drug wears off.
Brain scans performed on 16 former Ecstasy users who had abstained from the drug for at least a year did not show lasting damage to the serotonin receptors in cortical neurons.
But former users did not perform as well on memory tests as 13 control subjects who had never used the drug. While the neurons of former users seemed to recover, the consequences on memory from the earlier Ecstasy use may be irreversible, said study author Liesbeth Reneman of the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam.
The longer that Ecstasy was used and the higher the dosages, the worse the memory impairment, the study found.
“We identified that MDMA [Ecstasy] use is associated not only with short-term consequences [on memory] but with long-term consequences as well,” Reneman wrote in the October issue of the medical journal Archives of General Psychiatry.
Study participants, who ranged in age from 18 to 45, agreed not to use psychoactive drugs for three weeks before the testing. The study noted that Ecstasy users were more likely to smoke marijuana than the control group, which might have influenced the memory test results.
Previous research has shown Ecstasy, sometimes known as MDMA or by its chemical name 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, can cause dramatic changes in heart rate and blood pressure. It can also lead to dehydration and has been shown to cause lasting changes in the brain’s chemical systems that control mood and memory. Animal studies have shown damage to brain cells connected to memory function.