Party drug, Ecstasy, called risky May damage brain, Hopkins team says

November 12, 1993|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Staff Writer

Ecstasy, a drug that has become a staple of all-night parties known as "raves," reduces levels of an important brain chemical that regulates the way people feel, sleep and respond to stress, a study has found.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the National Institute of Mental Health found strong evidence that frequent users had significantly lower levels of serotonin, one of a family of chemicals that transmit messages between brain cells.

"The importance of this finding is that recreational drug users may be putting themselves at significant risk for brain injury," said Dr. George Ricaurte, a Hopkins neuroscientist who discussed the findings Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington.

But he and co-author Dr. Una McCann of NIMH, were careful not to claim that the drug causes serious psychological problems in the people who use it.

In fact, their study found that people who had taken the drug were somewhat less hostile and less impulsive than people who had never used it.

"The fact these individuals were less likely to put themselves in situations where they would do harm and were less impulsive may indeed be positive," Dr. McCann said yesterday. "We're not making a judgment on whether it's a good or a bad thing.

"People who use the drug and advocate its use say they are more peaceful and have increased insight," she said. "On the other hand, any drug that is possibly damaging to brain neurons -- I'd say that is concerning."

Dr. McCann is chief of the anxiety and affective disorders unit at the National Institute of Mental Health. She and Dr. Ricaurte are married.

The study followed earlier research that found that the drug, known scientifically as MDMA, damaged serotonin-producing cells in the brains of monkeys and rats.

In monkeys, for instance, serotonin levels were depleted by 90 percent.

There have been no epidemiological studies in the United States measuring the use of Ecstasy, which is chemically related to amphetamines but produces a calming effect. In England, where it is one of the most commonly abused drugs, authorities estimate that more than 1 million people have tried it.

Scientists have been eager to determine its effects on humans in part because of its popularity at "raves," dance parties that draw hundreds of people to buildings in often-secret locations.

The drug has also attracted interest among psychiatrists. Since the 1970s, some have argued that it makes patients more introspective and helps them honestly discuss their feelings. By the early 1980s, thousands of psychiatrists were legally administering the drug in therapy -- particularly in sessions designed to help couples work out their problems.

The drug, however, was banned in 1986 on the heels of studies that found brain damage in animals that were given a related drug, known as MDA. This forced Ecstasy underground, and now it it used by a relatively small number of therapists who risk their licenses by giving it to patients.

In the latest study, scientists compared 30 people who had used MDMA frequently with a group that had never used the drug. The "users" had tried the drug at least 25 times each, and averaged at least 100 experiences over a five-year period. They ranged in age from 18 to over 60.

Scientists cannot measure levels of serotonin in human volunteers. In animal experiments, such measurements are done by sacrificing the animals and analyzing their brains in autopsies.

In the human trial, researchers performed spinal taps on the volunteers -- obtaining small quantities of the fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord.

When they measured amounts of a serotonin byproduct, they found the chemical was depleted by 30 percent to 35 percent in the people with histories of Ecstasy use.

Outside the study, the research team has gathered several case studies of people who said they either became depressed or suffered memory loss or anxiety after taking the drug, Dr. McCann said.

But Rick Doblin, who volunteered for the Hopkins study and recruited about 10 others, said the study's most interesting finding may be an encouraging one -- that it made people less impulsive and hostile.

"There's not a single person I helped recruit who thinks MDMA harmed him," said Mr. Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies Inc., which advocates the drug's use in therapeutic settings.

"I would say these are people with a serious interest in learning from MDMA. Some of these were people who went to raves. . . .

"But hedonism and escapism is not an accurate way to characterize those who use it," he said.

Mr. Doblin, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., noted that psychiatrists have to give patients MDMA only a few times to accomplish their therapeutic goals.

And no study, he said, has documented neurological effects when the drug is taken infrequently.

He said an imminent study at the University of California at Los Angeles might shed further light on the drug's potential dangers -- or, for that matter, its safety.

In that study, scientists will administer equal amounts of Ecstasy to volunteers and observe the physical and psychological effects.

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