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Ricaurte Study
Associated Press
by Emma Ross

(Published in San Jose Mercury News & Houston Chronicle)
Positron emission tomographic evidence of toxic effect of MDMA ('Ecstasy') on brain serotonin neurons in human beings,
by U. D. McCann; Z Szabo; U Scheffel; R.F. Dannals; G. A. Ricaurte
The Lancet Vol 352, Oct 31, 1998, 1437

LONDON (AP) -- People who use the illegal drug Ecstasy are putting themselves at risk of developing brain damage, according to a new study. Brain scans of 14 men and women who used the party drug show it damages the nerves that release serotonin, the chemical believed to play a role in mood, thought processes, eating and sleep, researchers at Johns Hopkins University Medical School have found.

The damage occurred even with infrequent use and at typical doses of one or two tablets, but the more taken, the more severe the effects, according to the study, published in this week's issue of The Lancet, a British medical journal.

And although some of the participants had not taken the drug for several years, their brain scans were not much better. None of the 14 had taken it within three weeks before their tests, the researchers say. Ecstasy, a hybrid of the hallucinogen mescaline and the stimulant amphetamine chemically known as MDMA, has been shown in previous studies to cause brain damage in animals at doses similar to those used by humans.

In humans, tests have shown reduced levels of a serotonin byproduct, suggesting an indirect link between the drug and brain damage, the researchers say.

"But this is the first time we've been able to examine the actual serotonin-producing nerve cells directly in the brain,'' said Dr. George Ricaurte, the neurologist who led the study.

It is difficult to measure how widely Ecstasy is used because it is illegal. However, a survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found a four-fold increase between 1995 and 1996 in the number of Americans reporting they use the drug, Ricaurte said.

Users report heightened communication skills, a sense of closeness with others and increased emotional awareness.

In comparison with the 15 people studied who had never taken the drug, Ecstasy users had fewer serotonin transporters -- proteins embedded in the membranes of nerve endings that transmit nerve signals from one cell to another.

Those lower levels suggest the drug destroys the nerve endings in the brain, Ricaurte said.

"We've had lots of indirect evidence, but this goes right to the heart of it,'' said Dr. John Henry, a toxicologist at St. Mary's Hospital in London who was not involved in the study. "Ecstasy is definitely neurotoxic for man.''

Ricaurte said scientists do not know how many transporters the human brain can afford to lose before nerve-related psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, memory disturbance, sleep abnormalities or other troubles start to occur.

Ricaurte also said it is too early to tell whether the damage is permanent.

But Jim O'Callaghan, a neurotoxicologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, was not impressed by the study. He does not dispute that the drug causes a reduction in the number of serotonin transporters, only that this is not evidence that the nerve endings are destroyed.

AP-NY-10-29-98 1911EST
Copyright 1998 The Associated Press.
Distributed without prior written authority of The Associated Press.