Even small amounts of the drug ecstasy can harm the brains of first time users, a new study shows.
Researchers took brain scans and gave memory tests to 188 people who had never taken ecstasy (MDMA). The tests and scans were repeated 18 months later, and differences could be seen in the brains of 59 people who had tried small amounts of ecstasy in the intervening period. On average, those who had newly tried it had taken just six pills.
"We found a decrease in blood circulation in some areas of the brain in young adults who just started to use ecstasy," says Maartje de Win, who led the study at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. "We also found a relative decrease in verbal memory performance in ecstasy users compared to non-users." There was no evidence of damage to neurons or alteration to mood, however.
Ecstasy is an illegal amphetamine, which is taken by clubbers for its euphoric effects. The drug increases the amount of a neurotransmitter, called serotonin, in the brain. Serotonin is involved in regulating several brain functions, including mood and memory.
Previous studies have shown that long-term or heavy use of ecstasy can damage neurons and cause depression, anxiety, confusion, difficulty sleeping and decrease in memory.
However, this is the first study to examine the effects of low doses of ecstasy on the brain, the researchers claim. The study did not look at the long-term effects of ecstasy's low-dose effect on the brain, and so they were not able to say whether the effects would be permanent.
The study was presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, in Chicago.
28 November 2006 by New Scientist and AFP