Party drug Ecstasy inhibits production of brain chemical Hopkins researcher says hallucinogen harms cells that produce serotonin

October 30, 1998|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Ecstasy, a drug popular at all-night dance parties known as "raves," appears to damage brain cells that release a chemical responsible for mood, memory and pain perception, a study has found.

RTC Dr. George Ricaurte, a neurologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, conducted brain scans on people who had used the illicit drug an average of 200 times over a five-year period. The destruction was greatest among the most frequent users.

The drug damaged cells that release serotonin, a natural chemical that is associated with feelings of well-being. Ricaurte, however, said the study was not designed to show whether Ecstasy caused emotional problems -- only whether it caused physical changes in the brain.

"There are some case reports of people who had developed neuropsychiatric disturbances in the wake of [Ecstasy] use, but whether this is related to serotonin toxicity is unknown," he said. "The vast majority of people who have experimented with MDMA" -- the chemical name for Ecstasy -- "appear perfectly normal."

The designer drug is a hybrid of mescaline and amphetamine, which users say loosens inhibitions and makes people more relaxed and open with others.

Ricaurte said he has begun studies that will evaluate the drug's effects on mood, cognition, memory, sleep and appetite.

In the recent study, published this week in the Lancet, scientists injected a radioactive tracer into 14 people who had taken Ecstasy and 15 who had never taken it. The tracer sought out proteins in the endings of serotonin cells -- causing them to "light up" in a sophisticated brain scan known as positron emission tomography, or PET.

The study found a reduction of healthy serotonin cells ranging from 20 percent to 60 percent. Ricaurte said he did not know whether the damage was permanent.

One possibility is that Ecstasy creates a serotonin deficit that does not have a noticeable effect on young people but hastens symptoms as people lose brain cells as a natural effect of aging.

In the 1970s, some psychotherapists legally administered the drug in therapy -- believing it helped their patients understand and discuss their feelings. The drug was banned in 1986 on the heels of studies that found brain damage in experimental animals.

Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies Inc., said the ban has driven Ecstasy's therapeutic use underground. He said he supports Ricaurte's studies, which previously documented nerve damage among animals, but said scientists should also study the drug's benefits.

"There hasn't been a single study anywhere in the world into the benefits of MDMA," said Doblin, who lives in Boston.

Pub Date: 10/30/98

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