- (AP) People who use the illegal drug
Ecstasy are putting themselves at risk of developing brain damage, according
to anew study. Brain scans of 14 men and women who used the party drug
show it damages the nerves that release serotonin, the chemical believed
to play a role in mood, thought processes, eating and sleep, researchers
at Johns Hopkins University Medical School have found.
- 'Ecstasy is definitely neurotoxic for
man.' - DR. JOHN HENRY St. Mary's Hospital, London
- THE DAMAGE occurred even with infrequent use and at typical doses of one
or two tablets, but the more taken, the more severe the effects, according
to the study, published in this week's issue of The Lancet, a British medical
journal. And although some of the participants had not taken the drug for
several years, their brain scans were not much better. None of the 14 had
taken it within three weeks before their tests, the researchers say. Ecstasy,
a hybrid of the hallucinogen mescaline and the stimulantamphetamine chemically
known as MDMA, has been shown in previous studies to cause brain damage
in animals at doses similar to those used by humans.
- In humans, tests have shown reduced levels
of a serotonin byproduct, suggesting an indirect link between the drug
and brain damage,the researchers say. "But this is the first time
we've been able to examine the actual serotonin-producing nerve cells directly
in the brain," said Dr. George Ricaurte, the neurologist who led the
- USE OF THE DRUG RISING
- It is difficult to measure how widely
Ecstasy is used because it is illegal. However, a survey by the National
Institute on Drug Abuse found a four-fold increase between 1995 and 1996
in the number of Americans reporting they use the drug, Ricaurte said.
- Users report heightened communication
skills, a sense of closeness with others and increased emotional awareness.
- In comparison with the 15 people studied
who had never taken the drug, Ecstasy users had fewer serotonin transporters
- proteins embedded in the membranes of nerve endings that transmit nerve
signals from one cell to another.
- Those lower levels suggest the drug destroys
the nerve endings in the brain, Ricaurte said. "We've had lots of
indirect evidence, but this goes right to the heart of it," said Dr.
John Henry, a toxicologist at St. Mary's Hospital in London who was not
involved in the study. "Ecstasy is definitely neurotoxic for man."
- Ricaurte said scientists do not know
how many transporters the human brain can afford to lose before nerve-related
psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, memory disturbance,
sleep abnormalities or other troubles start to occur.
- Ricaurte also said it is too early to
tell whether the damage is permanent. But Jim O'Callaghan, a neurotoxicologist
at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, was not impressed
by the study. He does not dispute that the drug causes a reduction in the
number of serotonin transporters, only that this is not evidence that the
nerve endings are destroyed.