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Sleep Apnea Health Center

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Recreational Drug Ecstasy Linked to Sleep Apnea

Ecstasy Users Have 8 Times the Risk of Sleep Apnea
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 2, 2009 -- Recreational users of the drug ecstasy may be putting themselves at risk of sleep apnea, a new study suggests.

The researchers, lead by study author Una McCann, MD, of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, say ecstasy also has been linked to cognitive problems.

Sleep apnea, which afflicts an estimated 15 million Americans, is a common disorder that causes pauses in breathing during sleep.

McCann and colleagues’ study is published in the Dec. 2 online issue of Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Ecstasy and Sleep Apnea

The study included 71 healthy people who were recreational users of ecstasy (had used ecstasy at least 25 times, but drug-free for the two weeks prior to the study), and 62 healthy people who had never used the drug. Participants were monitored all night in a sleep lab.

The scientists say they found that users of ecstasy had upwards of eight times the risk of apnea or hypoapnea (shallow breathing) episodes while asleep compared with those who did not use the drug. They also say the ecstasy users and people in the control group had a similar rate of mild apnea, but only users of the drug had moderate or severe apnea, with eight cases of moderate apnea and one case of severe apnea detected.

The researchers also say the study suggests that the more a person had used ecstasy, the higher the rate of sleep apnea. Obesity is a known risk factor for sleep apnea, and the study says the risk of apnea was higher for ecstasy users than for those who were obese.

“People who use ecstasy need to know that this drug damages the brain and can cause immediate and dangerous problems such as sleep apnea,” McCann says in a news release. “Sleep apnea in itself is dangerous, but it can also contribute to thinking problems in people who use ecstasy because chronic sleep disruption is known to have a negative effect on how a person functions during the daytime.”

Ecstasy Affects Brain Chemical

Ecstasy is a selective brain serotonin neurotoxin, and sleep apnea may be a consequence of this effect, the researchers suggest.

Brain serotonin neurons modulate sleep and breathing patterns through a variety of mechanisms,” the authors write.

Serotonin, a chemical that helps relay signals from one cell to another, is involved in a variety of psychological and other body functions.

The researchers say that ecstasy seems to be a risk factor for sleep apnea in healthy young adults regardless of age, gender, race, and obesity.

In an accompanying editorial, Clifford B. Saper, MD, PhD, and Nancy L. Chamberlin, PhD, both neurology professors at Harvard Medical School, write that ecstasy use and sleep apnea both have reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. and that scientists and physicians should be concerned.

The scientists, also affiliated with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, say doctors should warn young people that the drug “damages their brains” and may cause sleep apnea and other problems.

Ecstasy also is known as MDMA.

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