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MDMA and heightened cortisol: a neurohormonal perspective on the pregnancy outcomes of mothers used ‘Ecstasy’ during pregnancy




The illicit recreational drug 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) or Ecstasy has strong neurohormonal effects. When taken by recreational users at dance clubs and raves, it can generate an 800% increase in the stress hormone cortisol, whereas drug-free users show chronically raised levels of cortisol. The aim here is to critically debate this neurohormonal influence for the children of pregnant MDMA-using mothers.


High levels of cortisol are known to be damaging for neuropsychobiological well-being in adult humans. MDMA can damage foetal development in laboratory animals, and the prospective Drugs and Infancy Study was established to monitor the effects of MDMA taken recreationally by pregnant women.


The Drugs and Infancy Study revealed that young mothers, who took MDMA during the first trimester of pregnancy, gave birth to babies with significant gross psychomotor retardation. These mothers would have experienced high levels of cortisol due to Ecstasy/MDMA use, and since cortisol can cross the placenta, this is likely to have also occurred in the foetus.


In terms of causation, the developmental problems may reflect a combination of neurotransmitter and neurohormonal effects on the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, with serotonergic activity being influenced by the high levels of cortisol. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.