Background The popular dance drug ecstasy (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine: MDMA and some analogues) causes selective and persistent neurotoxic damage of central serotonergic neurones in laboratory animals. Serotonin plays a role in numerous functional systems in the central nervous system (CNS). Consequently, various abnormalities including psychiatric, vegetative, neuroendocrine and cognitive disorders could be expected in humans following MDMA-induced neurotoxic brain damage.
Aims In recent years, the question of ecstasy-induced neurotoxicity and possible functional sequelae has been addressed in several studies with drug users. The aim of this paper was to review this literature and weigh the strength of the evidence for persistent brain damage in ecstasy users.
Methods We used Medline to view all available publications on ‘ecstasy’ or ‘MDMA’. All available studies dealing with ecstasy users entered this analysis.
Findings and conclusions Despite large methodological problems the bulk of evidence suggests residual alterations of serotonergic transmission in MDMA users, although at least partial restitution may occur after long-term abstinence. However, functional sequelae may persist even after longer periods of abstinence. To date, the most consistent findings associate subtle cognitive, particularly memory, impairments with heavy ecstasy use. However, the evidence cannot be considered definite and the issues of possible pre-existing traits or the effects of polydrug use are not resolved.
Recommendations Questions about the neurotoxic effects of ecstasy on the brain remain highly topical in light of its popularity among young people. More longitudinal and prospective studies are clearly needed in order to obtain a better understanding of the possible long-term sequelae of ecstasy use in humans.