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The use of ecstasy among young people – but not use of hallucinogenic drugs - is associated with changes in the cerebral serotonergic transmitter system

 

The cerebral serotonergic transmitter system plays an important role in cognitive functions as learning, memory, and mood conditions. Hallucinogenic drugs, e.g., LSD and psilocybin-containing mushrooms as well as the popular party-drug ecstasy stimulate the release of serotonin in the brain which leads to hallucinatory experiences and very intense feelings of mutual connections with other people. Experimental studies of animals treated with ecstasy have, however, shown that the use of ecstasy may result in changes in the cerebral serotonergic transmitter system.

In a recent study, performed by the Neurobiology Research Unit and Center for Integrated Molecular Brain Imaging (Cimbi) at Rigshospitalet, the long-term effects of the use of ecstasy and hallucinogenic drugs have been measured by advanced brain imaging techniques: Brain scans of the content of the serotonergic transporter in the brain, which is responsible for keeping the level of serotonin steady, and of the content and distribution of serotonin 2A receptor that – when stimulated with e.g. LSD – causes hallucinations.

The study showed that among young users of hallucinogenic drugs the content and distribution of the serotonin transporter in the brain was normal whereas for ecstasy users, it was significantly lower. This decrease followed the life-time intake of ecstasy, that is, the higher intake of ecstasy, the larger decrease in the serotonin transporter level. Fortunately, the results also showed that the changes were not completely irreversible. For instance, the serotonin transporter level in deep brain structures was approaching normal level the longer abstinence was maintained. However, without performing follow-up-studies, scientists will not be able to determine whether the changes in the cerebral cortex are permanent for large-scale users of ecstasy.

 

 

The paper showing these completely new results has just recently been published in the very well-estimated journal Arch Gen Psych: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21646575

 

Inquiries about the research results can be directed to the leader of the study Professor Gitte Moos Knudsen (35456720) or to the principal investigator, PhD David Erritzøe +44 7503 289090