Study indicates women more vulnerable to brain damage from party drug Ecstasy

Thursday, November 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) _ Ecstasy, the increasingly popular party drug, may cause more brain damage in women than in men, new research suggests.

A study published this week in The Lancet medical journal compared brain scans of people who had taken 50 or more Ecstasy tablets in their lifetimes with those of a group who had never taken the drug. The findings indicated women _ but not men _ lost a significant number of brain cells, even though the men had taken more Ecstasy over the years.

Fifty tablets is considered the threshold for increased risk of developing psychiatric problems. Experts said the preliminary findings raised an interesting possibility but that larger studies are needed to confirm the results.

Ecstasy, also known as XTC or E, affects serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates mood, emotion, sleep, appetite, memory and sexual behavior. The drug typically induces feelings of euphoria, increased energy and sexual arousal, and makes people feel a need to be touched or hugged.

The illegal drug, known scientifically as methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, is also said to suppress the need to eat, drink or sleep, making it possible to endure parties for two or three days.

However, in high doses it can cause a sharp increase in body temperature, leading to muscle breakdown, kidney and heart failure, and death.

Studies have shown it also kills brain cells that release serotonin. Scientists are now trying to find out how long the brain damage lasts and its long-term consequences. So far, studies have found that heavy users have persistent memory problems and preliminary research suggests they also have trouble with verbal reasoning and sustaining attention.

In the latest study, Dutch scientists compared the brain scans of 69 people, who were divided into four groups. One included people who used drugs but not Ecstasy, the second comprised those who had taken fewer than 50 tablets during their lives. The third, the heavy users, had taken 50 or more Ecstacy pills and the fourth group included people who used to be heavy users but had given up Ecstasy at least a year before the study.

The researchers found that compared to the brains of women who had never taken Ecstasy, the brains of heavy Ecstasy female users had weaker concentrations of serotonin transporters, the sites on brain cell surfaces that mop up serotonin from the space between cells after it has finished acting on other cells.

If the chemical is not mopped up, further brain signals are prevented from getting through.

MDMA gets into the brain cell through the serotonin transporter. A missing transporter means a dead cell, said the study's leader, Dr. Liesbeth Reneman, professor of radiology at the Academic Medical Center at the University of Amsterdam.

The decline in serotonin transporters was not seen in the men's brain scans, she said.

Kathryn Cunningham, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, said it makes sense that men and women would respond differently to MDMA.

One reason is that amphetamines are cleared from the body more quickly in the presence of testosterone, she said.

Another fact that supports the findings is that the female hormone estrogen regulates the serotonin transporter, said Cunningham, who was not involved in the study.

``Estrogen-dependent changes in the serotonin transporter might regulate the brain response, and thus toxicity, to MDMA. And it's conceivable that women may be more vulnerable to brain damage at certain times of the month,'' she said.

MDMA was discovered in Germany in 1913 and patented by a pharmaceutical company in 1914. It was intended as an appetite suppressant, but was never marketed because of its side-effects.

The chemical structure and effects of Ecstasy are similar to methamphetamine and mescaline _ other synthetic drugs known to cause brain damage.

Ecstasy gained popularity in the 1990s at all-night dance parties known as raves. Recent reports have shown that Ecstasy use is dramatically increasing in the United States, Europe and Southeast Asia.