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Ecstasy May Cause Brain Damage

Canadian researchers say they’ve found changes in the serotonin systems of chronic ecstasy users, which may explain why chronic ecstasy users experience a tolerance to the effects of the drug.

Researchers at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health say that they’ve found evidence of brain damage likely caused by chronic ecstasy use.

The Experiment

The scientists compared the brains of 49 ecstasy users with 50 non drug using control subjects. The ecstasy users had been taking the drug for an average of 4 years, with an average use frequency of 2 tablets, twice per month.

Brain chemical levels were checked with imaging probes and the drug use of study subjects was confirmed through hair drug testing.

  • They found that the drug users had lower levels of the serotonin transporter (SERT) in the brain.

When a person takes ecstasy, the drug manipulates SERT levels to cause the release of greater quantities of serotonin in the brain – causing a feel-good high. 84% of the drug users reported experiencing an ecstasy tolerance, which the researchers say could be explained by this diminished amount of SERT in the brain.

Lead researcher Stephen Kish says that while changes to the SERT system may indicate more permanent structural damage, that this is not yet proven, explaining, "It is possible that the low levels of the transporter means that there's actual brain damage, loss of serotonin neurons in the brain, but we can't prove that."

The full study results can be found in this week’s edition of the journal, Brain.

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