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Does Ecstasy (MDMA) Cause Brain Damage? Controversial Evidence.

Does Ecstasy (MDMA) really cause brain damage? There is a whirlwind of controversy surrounding Ecstasy and trying to determine whether it causes brain damage. Some people claim that the drug can cause significant damage to neurons, axons, and the entire serotonin system within the brain. Others claim that there is no solid scientific evidence to support the claims that Ecstasy causes brain damage. There are respected researchers on both sides of the spectrum – some believe that the drug isn’t dangerous while others think its use can have significant long term consequences.

Does Ecstasy cause brain damage? Controversial evidence.

If you do a search on Google, it seems as though there is a lot of conflicting evidence as to whether Ecstasy causes brain damage. One article will say that it is far more damaging to the brain than we originally thought, yet another says that there is no long-term damage as a result of taking Ecstasy. So what’s the truth? Does it damage the brain or doesn’t it? This is a topic certainly up for debate as much research surrounding the usage of MDMA has been falsely skewed as government propaganda.

Yes: Ecstasy causes brain damage.

Ronald L. Cowan (MD, PhD) states that MDMA is likely to produce several changes in the brain including “death” of various nerve cells. He went on to state that it could actually destroy some of the serotonin axons. He says he isn’t aware of any evidence supporting claims that serotonin receptors can regrow and reach their original potential once they are lost.

Other evidence claims that if MDMA is used in a controlled setting – e.g. under supervision of a professional, that adverse effects are less likely. In studies conducted with animals, there were a couple factors that controlled neurotoxicity including: body temperature and blood levels. High blood levels of Ecstasy accompanied by high body temperatures while on the drug are typically accompanied by brain damage.

Many people have heard reports that this drug is used in therapeutic settings for things like PTSD. This is true, but the amount ingested is lower and the body temperature of the person using it is often significantly lower than someone on a dance floor at a rave.

More evidence to support the claim that it causes brain damage comes from a study done with new ecstasy users. A study conducted in the journal “Addiction” demonstrated that individuals who took 10+ ecstasy pills over their first year had decreases in short-term memory function – in comparison to their initial pre-ecstasy performance. It is hypothesized that damage is done to the hippocampus – the area of the brain that is responsible for memory function.

Lead author Dr. Daniel Wagner says: “This study was designed to minimize the methodological limitations of earlier research, in which it was not possible to say whether cognitive impairments seen among ecstasy users were in place before drug use began. By measuring the cognitive function of people with no history of ecstasy use and, one year later, identifying those who had used ecstasy at least ten times and remeasuring their performance, we have been able to start isolating the precise cognitive effects of this drug.”

How Ecstasy is thought to damage the brain

  • Axon loss: Axons may get damaged or experience “death” as a result of ecstasy usage.
  • Memory function: Individuals may notice problems with memory functioning.
  • Short memory problems: Short term memory loss has been found to be an effect of recreational ecstasy use.
  • Nerve cells: Some researchers suggest that MDMA may actually cause permanent irreversible damage to important nerve cells.
  • Serotonin syndrome: Ecstasy has been hypothesized to lead to problems within the serotonergic system. This could result in depletion of serotonin receptors in the brain.

Source: http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1151061
Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22831704
Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11888574

No: Ecstasy doesn’t cause brain damage.

Some evidence says that using ecstasy is unlikely to cause any sort of brain damage. One study compared illicit ecstasy users and non-users – and excluded individuals with lifetime exposure to illicit drugs and alcohol. This was done with 52 illicit ecstasy users and 59 non-users among ages 18 to 45.

The study findings by Halpern et al. (2011) found very little evidence of decreased cognitive performance in ecstasy users. These researchers suggest that there may not be as much evidence of neurotoxicity as previously thought. With that said, they did state that further research needs to be conducted.

Source: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1360-0443.2010.03252.x/abstract

Is Ecstasy neurotoxic?

Much of the research suggests that Ecstasy is neurotoxic, but the neurotoxic effects may be prevented if it is used therapeutically, in a controlled setting, at a low dose. However, we do not know with 100% certainty that these effects can be prevented. All active doses of the drug are likely going to lead to oxidative stress within the brain. The pharmacokinetics of MDMA imply that even small increases in a dose could lead to large changes in plasma MDMA levels – which could have a neurotoxic effect.

Various types of pharmacological agents such as: antioxidants, SSRIs, and 5-HTP (hydroxytryptophan) injections have been shown to have a slight neuroprotective effect in rodent MDMA studies. With that said, the rodents that experienced neuroprotection typically receive injections of high doses of these protective agents – this may produce a more potent protective effect in rodents than humans.

Research conducted by Liechti in 2000 showed that pretreatment with 40 mg of an SSRI can decrease MDMA effects by 1.5 mg/kg. In 1999, Aguirre found that 2x daily administration of high dose alpha-lipoic acid completely blocked the neurotoxicity of Ecstasy in rats. Some even hypothesize that antioxidants even help enhance recovery from low doses of MDMA.

Does ecstasy cause permanent brain damage? Can it be reversed?

Even if you do sustain some sort of brain damage as a result of using Ecstasy (MDMA), the human brain is pretty resilient. There have been many cases of long term drug users recovering from what appeared to be “brain damage.” People that sustain brain damage are sometimes able to recover. With a drug like ecstasy, I would guess that if a person engaged in healthy activities, took the right supplements and antioxidants, they should be able to reverse the damage over the course of time.

Most things that kill brain cells are not going to have a long term effect – there is evidence that we can grow new neurons. We do not know if the axons and serotonergic system fully recovers after ecstasy usage, but it is logical to think that it would. A neurosurgeon that I spoke with hypothesized that people can sustain some damage in the brain and it typically won’t have a long term effect. With that said, most evidence does suggest that recreational ecstasy (MDMA) use will result in (at least) temporary problems and possible damage.

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{ 12 comments… add one }
  • John Doe January 9, 2015, 1:20 am

    I have taken over 150 pills over the course of 3 years, usually taken alongside alcohol in various amounts. I can say that I certainly feel somewhat brain damaged by my usage. My attention span and memory are diminished, my ability to focus has deteriorated and I’m afflicted with a general feeling of persistent “brain fog.” The problem with Ecstasy (the pill form of MDMA) is that it is highly difficult to determine the exact contents of the pill, which can often be adulterated with unknown substances, without proper equipment.

    I find this article irresponsible in that it ends on a pro-MDMA point. The evidence is inconclusive at best, but if you interact with people who take this stuff regularly it becomes apparent that this stuff does damage.

  • Jake March 21, 2015, 6:07 am

    I believe that the human study is flawed as well. We do not make distinctions in the type of individuals being used in the control and experimental groups. To clarify, all of the experiments suggest that the test subjects are of similar education, age, and profession. Over time, an individual’s cognitive function can fluctuate depending on his or her daily activities. An individual engaged in school work will have better cognitive ability than that same individual at the end of a long summer vacation.

  • John Smith November 18, 2015, 5:07 pm

    I took pills with various amounts of alcohol most weekends between 2000 and 2003, then very occasionally up until 2009. I’d estimate I took about 150 in total, maybe more. Most nights would be 1 or 2, the most was ten- that night I had trouble walking and could barely string a basic sentence together. After taking them every night on a week in Ibiza, I had to leave work the day after I got back, as I felt very unwell.

    I went home to bed and had a seizure, it was scary. I also remember once collapsing as I walked across my bedroom floor the day after a big night. Although initially the feeling of taking them was amazing, the euphoria was gradually replaced with a general foggy feeling, accompanied by confusion and paranoia. I stopped the regular use because I was experiencing increasingly bad mood swings and anger, which was seriously affecting me at work.

    My short term memory had also gone significantly downhill. I once had to very quickly excuse myself from a meeting the week following a clubbing night- I told them I was sick but it was a panic attack. Looking back I’m amazed I carried on for so long, and that the thought didn’t occur to me that I might be damaging myself. I’m now 37 and haven’t taken anything at all for the last 6 years.

    I wouldn’t say they have ruined my life, but I can sometimes get frustrated by my lack of short term memory. Sometimes I’ll be thinking about something and the thought completely disappears from my head, or I say something and it just doesn’t come out right. I can completely relate to John Doe’s description of ‘brain fog’. It goes up and down and as time goes by I feel it’s slowly getting better. It’s not a big problem in my life in general.

    I try not worry about it and just get on with things, but if I could go back I would definitely not have taken them. I read conflicting articles about whether ecstasy damages your brain or not – from someone who’s taken it I’m convinced it can.

  • Jane doe January 6, 2016, 9:41 pm

    This article shouldn’t be ending in a positively because mdma is extremely harming and shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you have taken Molly or any form of ecstasy you should stop now and let your brain recover and salvage the brain cells you have and take proper steps to get your body up to prime health. Take probiotics, exercise, get involved in positive activities, and if you are suffering from depression from the depletion of serotonin seek help and disclose the information with a doctor who can help you and get you on the right path to recovery.

  • John dozer January 28, 2016, 4:04 pm

    Hi all. A month ago I took MDMA for the third time in my life. I took two doses on a night out, 250mg each totalling 500mg on the night. The weeks after I noticed my verbal reasoning and comprehension had gone down the drain. I was reading articles like 3-4 times in order to simply understand what was being said. But the absolute worst effect has been the short term memory loss.

    I work in an environment where we all rely on our short term memory relatively heavily. And I find that I literally have regressed from a short term memory champion to a Neanderthal (respectively). I am forgetting everything! I detest MDMA currently with a passion for ruining my mind. My question is does anyone think I will recover. It’s only been my third time taking MDMA ever. Is there anything I can take to speed up recovery.

    I have exams coming up and it’s destroying my chances of passing. I’m working towards being a healthcare professional and so am seriously worried about going to a doc and for him/her to report me etc. I’ve just bought some 5-HTP and vit B12. Is there anything else I should be taking. Give me some good news people please! Much appreciated.

    • GP May 9, 2016, 1:47 pm

      You’ll recover, just give it time. Some recover slower, don’t stress.

    • Trevor August 11, 2016, 11:21 pm

      Why would you be worried? There is Dr patient confidentiality, no?

  • Billy Bob Shoemaker September 30, 2016, 3:15 am

    Looking at these comments… they are all against MDMA. And looking at their usernames… they are all stereotypical names. John Smith, John Doe, Jane Doe, John Dozer haha. It seems a little fishy to me.

  • Not a fish but real person November 9, 2016, 10:57 pm

    IMHO, damage is done. My personal experience is the first time it was amazing. I realized. I was just trying to get back to the first time. Never happened. Never as good. Eventually had a breakdown, sought help. SSRI’s saved me.

  • Jordan November 14, 2016, 6:24 pm

    I think, in most cases, severe persistent damage is caused by the overuse of the drugs. One of the above writers wrote that they took ten pills in one night… I doubt that the same scale of damage would be caused if you were taking 1/2 a pill or 1 pill every two weeks, or once a month. Besides, if you were taking alcohol in the same proportions you did with MDMA that night, you would have most likely died from alcohol poisoning. I feel that this article, whilst balanced to some degree, does not address the mode/frequency of usage.

    If you are using ANY drug to such an enormous degree you will be brain damaged. That is obvious. I think the more pertinent question is: does ‘moderated’ use of the drugs cause permanent damage. We willingly and knowingly damage ourselves with recreational drugs and the damage is typically temporary – we know this – what many of us want to know is – will we recover from our ‘MINOR’ indulgences over time. I don’t mind being a little groggy the next day cuz my high is great. But I don’t want to never recover.

  • Jamie December 2, 2016, 8:56 pm

    I’ve been taking ecstasy since the age of 17, it started off by taking a single pill then in over time it turned into 1-2 every Saturday, then 1 on a Monday, to the point I was taking it all the time. I reckon in the 2 years I’ve took 200-250 and I short term memory is beyond terrible. At work, it gets to the point were I’m putting things down for example my phone or my vapour and a minute later I don’t have a clue where it is.

    It’s frustrating me a lot and it’s getting me worried. It’s becoming a problem at work; and there will always be two sides of a argument. No it doesn’t give you brain damage or it does do damage to your brain. I’m only 21 don’t want to be stuck with this forever.

  • Bigmatt December 3, 2016, 2:41 am

    Hi my name is Matt and I did X every week for almost a year in college. It took almost 2 years to start effecting me. Multitasking is very hard now. I forget things all the time and I have headaches everyday especially when I read something in detail. I don’t understand sentences or words that well. My grammar sucks now, etc… I just want to know will I recover? I eat omega 3 everyday and walnuts. I workout 3 times a week. I feel I’m getting worse everyday. If I knew this was going to happen I would have just stuck to beer!

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