Does Taking Recreational Ecstasy Cause Brain Damage?

Does taking recreational ecstasy cause brain damage?

Does taking recreational ecstasy cause brain damage?

Check out this answer from Consensus:

The evidence from various studies and case reports suggests that recreational use of ecstasy can lead to significant brain damage and other health complications. The neurotoxic effects of MDMA on serotonergic neurons, the impact on cognitive functions, and the severe systemic reactions underscore the risks associated with this drug. It is crucial for individuals to be aware of these potential dangers and for further research to be conducted to fully understand the long-term consequences of ecstasy use.


The Potential Brain Damage from Recreational Ecstasy Use

The use of “Ecstasy,” or MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), as a recreational drug has been prevalent in various cultures, particularly within the “Rave” subculture. Despite its popularity, there is growing concern about its potential to cause brain damage and other severe health issues.

Ecstasy/MDMA’s Neurotoxic Effects

MDMA is known to selectively destroy serotonergic neurons in several brain regions across different species, including humans2. This destruction is associated with severe psychiatric disturbances, such as chronic psychoses, panic disorders, and even suicides. Furthermore, MDMA has been linked to systemic intoxication, characterized by hyperthermia, arrhythmias, blood pressure disturbances, and acute renal failure, with a mortality rate exceeding 40%2.

Impact on Learning and Memory of Ecstasy

Studies have shown that exposure to MDMA can cause long-lasting changes in brain regions responsible for learning and memory. For instance, rats exposed to MDMA during the embryonic period exhibited significant impairments in learning and spatial memory. These findings were supported by histological and molecular studies, which revealed up-regulation of GFAP and CD11b expression in the striatum, indicating persistent changes in microglial activity and astrocyte cell numbers1.

Case Reports of MDMA-Induced Damage

Case reports have documented instances of spinal cord injury/dysfunction (SCI/D) following recreational use of ecstasy. In one case, a 19-year-old male developed a T11 AIS B SCI/D after using ecstasy, likely due to ischemic events following the vasoconstrictive effects of the drug4. Additionally, profound hypoglycemia and convulsive hyponatremia have been reported in patients after ecstasy ingestion, highlighting the drug’s potential for causing severe metabolic disturbances5.


Does taking recreational ecstasy cause brain damage?

Charles  V. Vorhees has answered Unlikely

An expert from University of Cincinnati in Neurology, Paediatrics, Medicine

To the question of whether recreational ecstasy cause brain damage, let me start by saying that within the field of research on these drugs we don’t use the expression “Brain damage”. Let me try to answer by comparing the effects of methamphetamine (Meth) to those of methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA; ecstasy). 

At high doses in lab animals and in chronic human users Meth can cause neurotoxicity. In humans this is seen as reduced binding of the dopamine transporter using specific ligands that bind to these receptors that can be visualized on PET scans and in post mortem brain of chronic users that died of non-drug related causes, as reductions in dopamine and related dopamine biomarkers. In experimental animals, Meth will also cause neuropathological effects (such as dying neurons shown using stains for neurodegeneration). And chronic Meth users have reductions in memory and other neuropsychological functions. Some these effects last years, in others there is a gradual but often incomplete recovery of dopamine markers and some improvement of psychological abilities. Therefore, Meth is regarded as neurotoxic at high doses.

 MDMA on the other hand, causes few effects on dopamine; it mostly affects serotonin. Most people who take MDMA don’t take it the way Meth users do. Meth users usually escalate over time and because of tolerance eventually take high doses.

 MDMA users seldom do this, but like Meth, MDMA can cause hyperthermia which can be dangerous. In experimental animals giving MDAM at high doses (similar to those used to study Meth), it causes long-term reductions in serotonin, but it does not cause the neuropathological changes seen after Meth, therefore, some have called the serotonin and related changes neurotoxicity while others refer to these as changes and don’t characterize them as neurotoxicity, so I can’t resolve that; that’s an ongoing debate. 

Therefore, while high doses of MDMA cause long-term changes, most users don’t use MDMA chronically, but only recreationally (such as on weekends), and used this way it usually doesn’t cause long-term effects.

 But that’s for adults. However, when these drugs taken during pregnancy it’s another story. These drugs easily cross the placenta and can harm fetal brain development with permanent effects.


Does taking recreational ecstasy cause brain damage?

Jerrold S Meyer has answered Unlikely

An expert from University of Massachusetts in Psychology, Neuroscience, Pharmacology

This seemingly straightforward question is actually quite complicated, in part because the answer depends on (1) the contents (chemical composition and dose) of the “ecstasy” the individual is consuming, (2) the frequency and pattern of use to qualify as “recreational”, and (3) one’s definition of “brain damage.” In using the word “damage”, are we referring to clearly demonstrable structural injury such as occurs following physical trauma to the brain or in patients with neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, or are we applying a broader meaning that includes persistent molecular/biochemical brain abnormalities that produce adverse functional effects? As other experts have pointed out, numerous animal studies have shown that several high doses of pure MDMA (the most typical substance found in ecstasy tablets) can cause long-lasting abnormalities in the brain’s serotonin system, accompanied by various behavioral deficits. Brain imaging and behavioral/psychological studies of long-term, high dose ecstasy users suggest that similar effects are occurring in at least some of these users. However, because of the lack of opportunity (thus far) to examine anatomically the brains of heavy ecstasy users postmortem, there is little evidence that ecstasy-related structural injury is present. Therefore, if “brain damage” means physical injury to the brain, then perhaps the correct answer to the question should be “unknown”, at least until detailed, properly done postmortem examination of a number of ecstasy users brains has been conducted. Even then, it might be difficult to ascribe any observed injury specifically to ecstasy without considering the consumption of multiple drugs (polypharmacy) by most ecstasy users.


Does taking recreational ecstasy cause brain damage?

Rui  Tao has answered Unlikely

An expert from Florida Atlantic University in Pharmacology, Neuropsychology

Unlikely. However the answer to this question is dependent on environmental factors (not simply MDMA drug itself). Findings are summarized as follows.

  1.       If there is hyperthyroidism, one recreational relevant dose would be sufficient to kill the subject due to hyperthermia (a serious form of serotonin syndrome). 
  2.       If subjects have no hyperthyroidism, a single recreationally relevant dose such as <2 mg/kg (~2-4 tablets) could only cause a mild serotonin syndrome but have no 5HT deficit or other injury. The effect or conclusion is not altered by environmental condition such as physical activity and warm temperature. Is there any brain injury if many recreational relevant doses in several days are given? The answer is still no based on two-week animal data. However, it is not certain what happens if animal tests last several months. Please note the recreational use would still have more or less a mild serotonin syndrome even if there is no credible brain injury. The mild serotonin syndrome may be associated with empathy and other mood/behavioral changes, which has not being investigated.

You may ask: why are so many research publications to show that MDMA could cause brain damage? The question can be addressed from experimental design in which many investigators have used high MDMA dose levels and extreme drug environment for their work. Anxiety, distress and many intolerable abnormality are very apparent with a dose >2mg/kg, no longer recreationally relevant. As the dose >10 mg/kg, MDMA starts to cause brain injury but it is not absolutely. a) If ambient temperature is cold and subject remains in an inactive state, 10 mg/kg can only cause a mild serotonin syndrome with no brain injury. b) if ambient temperature or physical activity is high, brain injury could occur. Nevertheless, both high dose and high temperature are absolutely required in order to cause brain damage, but unlikely relevant to the recreational use in human being.


Does taking recreational ecstasy cause brain damage?

Susan Schenk has answered Likely

An expert from Victoria University of Wellington in Addiction

Ecstasy is a street drug that can contain the psychoactive ingredient, methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), but often it contains other ingredients. Sometimes the MDMA content is high; other times it is quite low. So the question concerning effects of ecstasy is not easily answered since it can depend on what is actually in the ecstasy tablet.

Additionally, “recreational use” is not a pattern of use that can easily be quantified. What does it really mean? Weekend use? Monthly use? Daily use? Having said that, there is evidence that ecstasy use is associated with deficits in neurotransmission, particularly in brain systems that use the chemical, serotonin.

Most studies have suggested that “heavy” use is more likely to produce these deficits. This may, or may not, be due to MDMA or its metabolites. Additionally, ecstasy users tend to be polydrug users and so any effects of consumption might reflect the effect of MDMA, effect of other drugs that are used, or effects of the combination of drugs. Animal studies that have specifically manipulated MDMA exposure have shown that MDMA causes neuroadaptive responses in brain serotonin systems and that these neuroadaptations are persistent. The magnitude of the deficit is dependent on the amount of MDMA exposure as well as on the frequency of exposure. The minimal amount of MDMA exposure that produces these effects has not been systematically studied.

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