Taking the party drug MDMA, commonly known as “ecstasy,” could induce Parkinson’s disease later in life by extensively damaging serotonin and dopamine neurons, according to a recent study.

Paul Wong
Dancers enjoy a night out at the Necto on East Liberty Street. Nightclubs and raves are popular hangouts for ecstasy users.

The study, published in a recent issue of Science magazine, asserts that the current view of ecstasy does not correctly realize the drug’s potential to permanently damage the brain.

The prevailing view claims that MDMA damages serotonin receptors in animals and possibly in humans. The lead author, George Ricaurte of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, asserts that MDMA damages not only serotonin receptors but also dopamine receptors in baboons and squirrel monkeys when the dosage is taken multiple times.

The experimental multiple-dose regimen intends to model the trend among partygoers to take ecstasy more than two times in a night.

“If you change the pattern of exposure to the drug, you suddenly change the profile of neurotoxicity to the drug,” Ricaurte said. “What we did was to change the pattern of drug administration due to the change in the way the drug is taken.”

An idea stemming from the research is that more Parkinson’s cases will appear after an increase in MDMA use, but early onset of Parkinsonism due to ecstasy has not been proven in humans.

“We know it occurs in two species of primates but not in humans,” Ricaurte said, adding that he does not know if these findings are permanent. “If these are true, then you might be seeing a rise in Parkinson’s cases because you don’t have a large enough (brain) lesion.”

Although the trembling and twitching associated with Parkinson’s has been noticed at the Ann Arbor Clear House, an outpatient treatment center that offers counseling and treatment for substance abuse, the cases have been isolated.

“I’ve seen trembling in one case,” said James Smith, a therapist at Clear House. The patient “said (the twitching) was in the bones in his jaws, and he said the ecstasy affects his bones.”

Smith added that he had only seen three cases involving ecstasy in the five years he has been working at Clear House.

The next step to understanding ecstasy’s long-term effects is ascertaining its neurotoxicity in humans after observing the neurotoxicity in primate species.

“You can’t just jump to the conclusion that it does occur in humans,” Ricaurte said.

Whether the number of Parkinson’s cases will rise as the generation grows older is still unanswered, Robert Winfield, director of University Health Services, said.

“If you are destined to get Parkinson’s disease and if you take MDMA five to 10 times, might you get Parkinson’s disease five to 10 years earlier?” Winfield asks. “No one knows the answer.

“This study is certainly what I would call a red flag. But I don’t think it could be called conclusive,” he added.

An experimental result in one of the five squirrel monkeys and one of the five baboons was malignant hyperthermia leading to death within hours of the last MDMA dose. These findings are similar to current complications with ecstasy use among humans who use the drug who pass out or overheat.

The primary symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are trembling in the face and appendages, stiffness in the torso, slowed movement, and impaired balance and coordination. Parkinson’s disease has been linked to the loss of brain cells that produce dopamine, a chemical that helps control muscle activity.

MDMA – or 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine – belongs to the group of drugs known as “entactogens,” literally meaning “touching within.” MDMA and other entactogens are known for creating a feeling of connectedness with others that is stronger and more complex that the related group of drugs known as empathogens, which effect an increase in empathy.

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