Proof positive. Taking Ecstasy permanently alters your brain

The first formal studies using brain scans show that regular Ecstasy users are permanently changing their brains. Isn't that bad news? Well, maybe, maybe not: our brains might take it in their stride, just as they do so much else. Charles Arthur, Science Editor, looks at the implications.

The brain scans are unequivocal. For the first time, scientists have demonstrated that long-term users of the "rave drug" Ecstasy are permanently altering their brains. The tough question now is, are they actually damaging them?

Though the effects of the changes could take years or even decades to show up, it is potentially serious news for the UK's estimated 500,000 regular "E" users, who each take one or two tablets every weekend. If the brain cannot compensate for the changes caused by the drug, the long- term effects could include widespread depression and even suicide.

That is because Ecstasy affects the production of a chemical that modulates how happy we feel. In effect, repeated use might leave the brain drained of that chemical. But scientists are still debating whether, over time, our most adaptable organ might make allowances even for that change.

The latest research by George Ricaurte, assistant professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University, used positron emission tomography (PET) scanners, which can produce detailed images of active areas of the brain, to study two groups, each of 14 recreational drugs users.

The first group used Ecstasy and other drugs; the others used drugs excluding Ecstasy. Though small, the number is sufficient to pinpoint differences between groups using PET.

Dr Ricaurte examined the peoples' brains to evaluate the activity of the millions of brain synapses which release a neurotransmitter called serotonin - the "happiness chemical". The control subjects had normal levels of serotonin activity. The Ecstasy users, though, showed deficiencies in all brain regions.

Una McCann, one of the team members, told New Scientist magazine that this is clear evidence that Ecstasy damages serotonin-generating synapses: "The message is that if you're going to use it, do it in moderation."

But David Concar, the deputy editor of New Scientist and a PhD in biochemistry, pointed out last night that the case against Ecstasy may not be so clear- cut. "The really tricky point about this is whether you call these changes `damage', or whether they are chemical responses to the drug which would in time reverse themselves." A scientist for the US Environmental Protection Agency commented that "there's no evidence of structural damage".

The knee-jerk reaction by drug opponents would be to point to this study as definitive evidence that Ecstasy does damage. Earlier studies using questionnaires have shown, though less convincingly than PET scans, that regular users of Ecstasy tend to be more depressed than non-users.

But that is not incontrovertible evidence of permanent damage. The human brain repeatedly demonstrates that it is capable of withstanding massive amounts of damage and rebuilding itself: people who have sufffered even serious strokes often regain many faculties, demonstrating that even real damage in which neurons actually die can be overcome.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?