Recreational use of the club drug Ecstasy could cause memory problems, new research finds.
The research is the first study of Ecstasy users before they begin to use the drug regularly, which helps rule out alternative causes for the memory loss, said study leader Daniel Wagner, a psychologist at the University of Cologne in Germany.
“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 10 times and remeasuring their performance, we have been able to start isolating the precise cognitive effects of this drug,” Wagner told LiveScience.
Ecstasy, or MDMA (shorthand for its tongue-twister of a chemical name, 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is a popular drug often taken at raves or techno clubs. In Europe, researchers estimate that about 5.6 percent of 15- to 34-year-olds have used the drug at some point. In the United States, about 5.7 percent of people have used Ecstasy at some point, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The effects of the drug have been tough to pin down, however. Animal studies suggest that MDMA degrades the ends of brain cells that use the neurotransmitter serotonin to communicate. Studies in humans have hinted that Ecstasy use can harm memory and learning, but that research has been plagued with confounding variables such as other drug use or pre-existing differences between Ecstasy users and nonusers.
In 2009, the debate over Ecstasy’s effects claimed the job of David Nutt, a psychologist who once chaired the U.K. Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The British government fired Nutt from that position after he said that LSD, cannabis and Ecstasy were not as harmful as other drugs, including alcohol.
Wagner and his colleagues focused their study on new users of Ecstasy. To qualify, people had to have some experience with the drug — making it more likely that they’d use it in the future — but could not have taken more than five pills in their lifetimes.
Of 149 participants who qualified, 109 returned 12 months later for a series of psychological tests, many focusing on memory. Of these, 43 participants used no other drugs other than MDMA and marijuana (there are very few Ecstasy users who don’t also use marijuana, the researchers wrote), and 23 had used more than 10 pills in the past year. It was this group that the researchers compared with nonusers.