Dutch researchers have found that even a small amount of ecstasy can be harmful to the brain.
Ecstasy is an illegal class A drug that acts as a stimulant and psychedelic and is commonly used by young people both in the UK and the U.S. mostly in parties, clubs and discos.
But according to the study by a team at the University of Amsterdam even small amounts of the drug can be harmful to the brains of first time users.
The study is the first to look at the neurotoxic effects of low doses of the recreational drug in new ecstasy users.
Maartje de Win, M.D., radiology resident at the Academic Medical Center at the University, says they found a decrease in blood circulation in some areas of the brain in young adults who just started to use ecstasy and a decrease in verbal memory performance when compared to non-users.
It seems ecstasy targets neurons in the brain that use the chemical serotonin to communicate and serotonin plays an important role in regulating a number of mental processes including mood and memory.
Research has shown that long-term or heavy ecstasy use can damage these neurons and cause depression, anxiety, confusion, difficulty sleeping and memory loss.
However, no previous studies have looked at the effects of low doses of the drug on first-time users.
For the study Dr. de Win and colleagues examined 188 volunteers with no history of ecstasy use but at high-risk for first-time ecstasy use in the near future.
The examinations included neuroimaging techniques to measure the integrity of cells and blood flow in different areas of the brain and various psychological tests.
After 18 months, 59 first-time ecstasy users who had taken six tablets on average and 56 non-users were re-examined with the same techniques and tests.
The study found that low doses of ecstasy did not severely damage the serotonergic neurons or affect mood; however, there were indications of subtle changes in cell architecture and decreased blood flow in some brain regions, suggesting prolonged effects from the drug, including some cell damage.
The results also showed a decrease in verbal memory performance among low-dose ecstasy users compared to non-users.
Dr. de Win says it is unclear if these effects are transient or permanent, but the obvious conclusion is that ecstasy, even in small doses, is not safe for the brain, and people should be informed of this risk.
This research is part of the Netherlands XTC Toxicity (NeXT) study, which also looks at high-dose ecstasy users and aims to provide information on long-term effects of ecstasy use in the general population.
A survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in 2004 found that 450,000 people in the United States age 12 and over had used ecstasy in the past 30 days and half a million Brits are believed to take ecstasy each week.
The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).