Rationale: (-) 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA or "ecstasy") has been shown to cause long term damage to serotonergic cerebral neurons in animals. The neurotoxic effects in humans are less clear and little is known about the functional consequences, although some studies suggest memory impairment. Given the widespread use of MDMA, our lack of knowledge raises concerns. Objective: We investigated, in humans, the relation between past use of ecstasy and cognitive performance as well as serotonergic function. Methods: Two groups of 21 males with moderate and heavy recreational use of MDMA, respectively, and a control group of 20 males without use of MDMA were compared. All were from the same subculture. Reaction time, direct recall, and recognition were assessed. Serotonergic function was measured by the neuro-endocrine response to a placebo-controlled, crossover challenge with dexfenfluramine. Results: Ecstasy users showed a broad pattern of statistically significant, but clinically small, impairment of memory and prolonged reaction times. Heavy users were affected stronger than moderate users. Release of cortisol but not of prolactin after dexfenfluramine administration was significantly reduced in both groups of ecstasy users compared with the controls. Analyses of covariance showed that likely confounding variables including recent exposure to ecstasy, psychosocial profiles and use of other drugs did not explain the differences found between the groups. Conclusions: These results provide further evidence that use of ecstasy may be associated with impairment of memory and of serotonergic function. These findings are compatible with neurotoxicity of ecstasy as shown in animals.
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