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Ecstasy Use May Make Brain Less Efficient

Findings suggest changes could be permanent, researcher says

THURSDAY, May 12, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Use of the illegal drug ecstasy is associated with long-term changes in brain function, a new study finds.

U.S. researchers used functional MRI to compare the brain's response to visual stimulation in volunteers aged 18 to 35 who had used ecstasy, though not within two weeks of the study, and those who had never used the drug.

Ecstasy users with the highest lifetime exposure to the drug showed increased activation in three areas of the brain associated with visual processing. This suggests that ecstasy use is associated with the loss of serotonin signaling, resulting in increased activation, or hyper-excitability, of the brain, the Vanderbilt University Medical Center researchers said.

Hyper-excitability indicates a loss in brain efficiency, which means it takes more brainpower to process information or perform a task.

In participants who had used ecstasy for more than a year, brain activation did not return to normal after the visual stimulation used in the study.

"We think this shift in cortical excitability may be chronic, long-lasting and even permanent," Dr. Ronald Cowan, an associate professor of psychiatry, said in a Vanderbilt news release. "The question is what will happen to their brains as they age over the next 60 years."

The findings are reported in the May issue of Neuropsychopharmacology.

About 14.2 million people aged 12 and older in the United States have used ecstasy in their lifetime, according to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. About 760,000 had used the drug in the month before being surveyed.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has more about ecstasy.

SOURCE: Vanderbilt University Medical Center, news release, May 3, 2011
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