UC researchers awarded federal grant to examine the effects of ecstasy use in young adults
A so-called "club drug" – typically not used all that often by those who take it – can still have the potential to cause a lot of damage among some users, say University of Cincinnati researchers. Trials are underway to trace the effects of ecstasy and to see who's most at risk. The study is supported by $471,000 in federal stimulus funds awarded by the National Institutes of Health and spread out over two years.
The researchers will be examining individual genetics as well as conducting high-resolution brain imaging at UC's Center for Imaging Research, as they examine drug use among young adults between the ages of 18 and 25. They say they're researching an understudied area, as they narrow in on how ecstasy use leads to consequences in brain structure and cognition.
The interdisciplinary research is led by principal investigator Krista Lisdahl Medina, a UC assistant professor of psychology in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), and co-investigator Judith Strong, a research associate professor for the Department of Cell and Cancer Biology, UC College of Medicine.
"Most of these young adults would have started using these drugs during adolescence," explains Medina. "Among ecstasy and marijuana users, we want to see – during this ongoing time of peak usage and human development – what's going on in terms of cognition, mood and brain structure.
"So, our first goal is to characterize the effects of these drugs. Our second goal is to see if individual genetics actually moderate the negative effects," Medina says.
Medina says the researchers will be examining whether ecstasy users will show significantly poorer memory function as well as a smaller hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for mood and memory – compared with marijuana users, non-drug-using adolescents and young adults.
They're also examining genetics to see if drug users who carry low serotonin levels are more severely affected by ecstasy use than users with high serotonin levels.
Serotonin is a key neurotransmitter in the brain that is known for regulating mood and for playing a role in cognitive functions such as memory. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to anxiety and depression.
Ecstasy, a man-made drug that is part hallucinogen and part stimulant, affects the serotonin system. Users report a sense of euphoria and increased sensation, as ecstasy brings on a rush of serotonin levels. "People tend not to be daily or even regular users. They'll plan for it, perhaps for a special occasion," Medina says.
Medina says she has conducted previous research that found long-term use of ecstasy was linked to poor verbal memory. Other research has linked ecstasy to poor executive function, such as attention, problem-solving and planning. Men have been found to have an increased risk of impacting executive function with ecstasy use.
"It's not used all that often, but it can cause a lot of damage," Medina says. "We'll also be exploring what happens when people are combined drug users, such as combining marijuana or alcohol with ecstasy."
Medina says ecstasy use continues to be a major public health problem among adolescents and young adults. The researchers want their findings to aid biologically-based treatments for drug users.
Public release date: 19-Oct-2009
University of Cincinnatii