The mental agony of Ecstasy

March 20, 1998

The drug Ecstasy can kill, but what about its psychological effects? Marya Burgess reports

Since Leah Betts died two years ago, after taking Ecstasy on her 18th birthday, the message has gone out loud and clear: don't take Ecstasy, it can kill. But Val Curran, a psychopharmacologist at University College London, believes that there is potentially a more serious problem; she fears that the "mid-week blues" reported by Ecstasy-users may be just the tip of a calamitous iceberg. "The original scare stories were all based on medical problems, which are in fact relatively rare. But in every animal species studied, Ecstasy has been shown to have a toxic effect on the brain."

Specifically, Ecstasy drains the brain of seratonin, low levels of which have been associated with depression. Curran, who uses drugs to study the brain and is interested in their psychological effect, faced a problem in exploring Ecstasy's impact on the human brain: you cannot administer such a drug to subjects in a trial. Instead she had to find people already using Ecstasy on the club and rave scene. "I couldn't actually 'hang out' - I'd have looked too out of place. So we set up a mini lab at the back of the rave and relied on announcements by my research student and part-time DJ, Ross Travill, to take people off the dance floor."

There was an ethical dilemma: whether someone on drugs can give informed consent to participating in a research trial. But since Curran's study was looking at mood changes up to five days later, subjects could, if they wished, withdraw from the trial when no longer "under the influence". The study looked at two groups of 12, comparing those using alcohol with those who reported taking Ecstasy. All of them had to agree to be visited at home the next day (Sunday) and again the following Wednesday.

Both groups had similarly low scores on mood level indicators on Sunday; those using Ecstasy had not slept while those on alcohol were hung over. But by day five (Wednesday), the users' scores were much lower than the drinkers', who were back to normal. Two in the Ecstasy group were moderately clinically depressed. In another, unpublished, study, Curran followed a group of Ecstasy users over a three-week period. They had to agree not to use the drug after the first weekend. While for some their mood lifted towards the end of the first week, the others continued to show signs of depression. "Some were definitely more prone to midweek depression than others; it seems to relate to how often they take Ecstasy, but it also seems some are more susceptible than others to the psychological effects. The real question is, what happens in years to come?" Curran was invited to present her evidence at a special conference on Ecstasy called by the European parliament in Brussels. The aim was to develop Europe-wide regulations for a drug which can be made in the kitchen, and is therefore not vulnerable to normal constraints on importing. "There were politicians and members of Europol, and just two scientists, a medical expert on Ecstasy, and myself. The meeting acknowledged that deaths from Ecstasy are rare compared with those from alcohol and tobacco. But my concern is not just the short-term effects but what could happen long-term. Ecstasy's been shown to be neurotoxic in every animal species. We don't know whether it is in humans, but if it is, given the numbers involved, we're going to be dealing with a large-scale problem of depression and impairment of concentration and memory."

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