Hopkins Study Shows Brain Damage Evidence In "Ecstasy" Users

October 30, 1998

"...people who use (it) unwittingly put themselves at risk"

The common street drug "ecstasy" causes brain damage in people, according to a new Johns Hopkins study. In a report in The Lancet released this week, Hopkins scientists show that the drug -- known chemically as MDMA -- damages specific nerves in the brain that release serotonin, the nerve transmitter thought to play a role in regulating mood, memory, pain perception, sleep, appetite and sexual activity.

"We had long suspected MDMA was dangerous, based on our earlier studies in primates that showed nerve damage at doses similar to those taken by recreational drug users," says neurologist George Ricaurte, M.D., Ph.D., who led the research team. Additional studies by the team examined drug users' spinal fluid for levels of a serotonin by product; reduced amounts strongly suggested brain damage in humans.

"But this is the first time we've been able to examine the actual serotonin-producing nerve cells directly in the brain," Ricaurte says. Using a nerve-specific technique that took more than five years to develop, the scientists took PET scans of 14 men and women who reported heavy use of ecstasy. With a radio-labeled probe, the team targeted molecules -- serotonin transporters -- that normally reabsorb serotonin into nerve cells after it has done its job.

Like certain antidepressants, MDMA also attaches to serotonin transporters. The transporters lie embedded in the membranes of nerve cells, at the tips of fingerlike extensions called axons.

In the study, the PET scans showed MDMA users had far fewer serotonin transporters than controls who didn't use the drug. Also, the greater the use of MDMA -- some of the subjects had used it 200 or more times -- the greater the loss. "These losses are significant, and, along with our early studies in animals, suggest that nerve cells are damaged," says Ricaurte. Whether or not the cells are permanently damaged, he says, is uncertain. But in studies in animals, including primates, the losses are long-lasting and may be permanent in some brain regions.

The area of brain damage is diffuse but involves the endings of serotonin-releasing nerves that reach throughout the forebrain -- the "higher" brain that includes the cerebral cortex and adjacent areas, parts of the brain involved in thought, memory and emotion.

Ecstasy is a designer drug hybrid of the hallucinogen mescaline and the stimulant amphetamine. Users report a heightened sense of closeness with others, increased awareness of emotion and ability to communicate.

"They find these effects unique," says Ricaurte, "and we hope to use this new technique to explore the basis for good feelings, as well as for depression and anxiety. But our immediate concern is that people who use MDMA recreationally are unwittingly putting themselves at risk of developing brain injury."

As for direct behavioral signs of brain damage in heavy users of the drug, Ricaurte says, studies to evaluate possible differences in thought and behavior are well under way. "We have some early indications there may be changes in memory and cognition."

The PET technique in this study is the first that allows researchers to pick serotonin-producing nerves out of millions of others in the brain and view them directly, says Ricaurte. The team is already looking into applications of the method to study depression and Parkinson's disease.

Ecstasy is especially popular at "raves," the late-night, music-driven parties that attract hundreds of young adults.

Other researchers on the team are Robert Dannals, Ph.D., Ursula Scheffel, Ph.D., and Zsolt Szabo, M.D., Ph.D., of Hopkins; and Una McCann, Ph.D., of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Funding for the study was from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions' news releases are available on a PRE-EMBARGOED basis on EurekAlert at http://www.eurekalert.org, Newswise at http://www.newswise.com and from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs' direct e-mail news release service. To enroll, call 410-955-4288 or send e-mail to bsimpkins@jhmi.edu.

On a POST-EMBARGOED basis find them at http://hopkins.med.jhu.edu, Quadnet at http://www.quad-net.com and ScienceDaily at http://www.sciencedaily.com.

Johns Hopkins Medicine

Related Memory Articles from Brightsurf:

Memory of the Venus flytrap
In a study to be published in Nature Plants, a graduate student Mr.

Memory protein
When UC Santa Barbara materials scientist Omar Saleh and graduate student Ian Morgan sought to understand the mechanical behaviors of disordered proteins in the lab, they expected that after being stretched, one particular model protein would snap back instantaneously, like a rubber band.

Previously claimed memory boosting font 'Sans Forgetica' does not actually boost memory
It was previously claimed that the font Sans Forgetica could enhance people's memory for information, however researchers from the University of Warwick and the University of Waikato, New Zealand, have found after carrying out numerous experiments that the font does not enhance memory.

Memory boost with just one look
HRL Laboratories, LLC, researchers have published results showing that targeted transcranial electrical stimulation during slow-wave sleep can improve metamemories of specific episodes by 20% after only one viewing of the episode, compared to controls.

VR is not suited to visual memory?!
Toyohashi university of technology researcher and a research team at Tokyo Denki University have found that virtual reality (VR) may interfere with visual memory.

The genetic signature of memory
Despite their importance in memory, the human cortex and subcortex display a distinct collection of 'gene signatures.' The work recently published in eNeuro increases our understanding of how the brain creates memories and identifies potential genes for further investigation.

How long does memory last? For shape memory alloys, the longer the better
Scientists captured live action details of the phase transitions of shape memory alloys, giving them a better idea how to improve their properties for applications.

A NEAT discovery about memory
UAB researchers say over expression of NEAT1, an noncoding RNA, appears to diminish the ability of older brains to form memories.

Molecular memory can be used to increase the memory capacity of hard disks
Researchers at the University of Jyväskylä have taken part in an international British-Finnish-Chinese collaboration where the first molecule capable of remembering the direction of a magnetic above liquid nitrogen temperatures has been prepared and characterized.

Memory transferred between snails
Memories can be transferred between organisms by extracting ribonucleic acid (RNA) from a trained animal and injecting it into an untrained animal, as demonstrated in a study of sea snails published in eNeuro.

Read More: Memory News and Memory Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.