Chronic Brain Damage from Ecstasy Use

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A report published in the Archives of General Psychiatry this month (abstract here) demonstrates that ecstasy does cause long term brain changes in otherwise healthy women.

The current paradigm of science based therapy compels research to find specific physiological changes with the use of illegal drugs. It isn’t enough to label them harmful without attempting to understand just what that harm may be. Now, continuing their research that used animal models, investigators at Vanderbilt University have shown effects in humans from ecstasy. These effects remain months after last using the drug.

At issue is how the brain responds to stimulation of serotonin during use and then what happens after ecstasy is stopped. The study compared women who had used the drug to those who had never used it at all. It also separated out any subjects that showed signs of clinical problems (which might be unrelated to drug use). The ecstasy using group had changes in brain receptors for serotonin that indicated a chronic lack of the neurotransmitter. This would tend to explain the long term effects of depression, anxiety and memory loss.

Not all users develop cognitive trouble after ecstasy use, and research to demonstrate impairment has been inconclusive. However, this study shows the underlying physiological differences. Although different people would cope differently with these neurological deficits, the fact that ecstasy use causes them gives rise to concern. The drug has been proposed as a treatment for several medical conditions, including PTSD and end-of-life cancer care, but not investigated in the same way that an FDA approved drug would be.

With this information, it is less likely that ecstasy will travel the same decriminalization route that medical marijuana did. Here there are clear indications of harm, regardless of how popular the drug has become in some user communities. The information also helps the treatment community by explaining the long term consequences. Understanding the brain chemistry will help drive more specific treatments.

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