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Long-Term Ecstasy Use May Damage the Brain

Study Shows Chronic Ecstasy Users Have Reduced Volume of Hippocampus Region of Brain
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 7, 2011 -- Long-term users of the street drug ecstasy may be at increased risk of structural brain damage, new research suggests.

Researchers in the Netherlands enlisted 10 men in their mid-20s and seven in their early 20s for the study. The 10 in the mid-20s were long-term users of ecstasy. The other seven men were healthy and had no history of ecstasy use.

Magnetic resonance imaging scans (MRIs) were used to measure the volume of a part of the brain called the hippocampus, considered to be responsible for long-term memory.

Though the ecstasy group had used more amphetamine and cocaine than the non-ecstasy group, both groups had used similar amounts of recreational drugs and reported they drank alcohol regularly.

The researchers write that the young men in the ecstasy group had not used the drug, on average, for more than two months before the study began, but had taken an average of 281 ecstasy tablets over the past 6.5 years.

Shrinkage of Hippocampus Region of Brain

The hippocampal volume in the ecstasy group was 10.5% smaller than those in the non-ecstasy group, the MRI brain scans showed. What’s more, the overall proportion of gray matter was 4.6% lower, on average, among ecstasy users.

The researchers say this suggests that the effects of ecstasy may not be restricted to the hippocampus region alone.

“Taken together, these data provide preliminary evidence suggesting that ecstasy users may be prone to incurring hippocampal damage following chronic use of this drug,” the researchers write.

Their findings, they report, mirror previous research that has indicated acute swelling and later atrophy of hippocampal tissue in long-term ecstasy users.

“Hippocampal atrophy is a hallmark for diseases of progressive cognitive impairment in older patients, such as Alzheimer’s disease,’’ the researchers say.

“Since the hippocampus plays an essential role in long-term memory, the present findings are of particular interest in view of the [previous] various studies showing that ecstasy users display significant memory impairments, whereas their performance on other cognitive tests is generally normal,” the researchers conclude.

The study is published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

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