Several new reports presented today in London describe a drug that can produce negative feelings -- including depression and aggression -- and even may alter normal brain chemistry long after a person has stopped taking it.
Ecstasy -- or methylenedioxymethamphetamine -- is a synthetic, mind-altering drug that acts both like an amphetamine and a hallucinogen. It's thought to cause the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin from nerve cells that produce it. The high, which lasts from several minutes to several hours, produces increased energy along with a feeling of peacefulness and empathy.
However, the drug is not as benign as it may seem. Side effects include nausea, hallucinations, chills, sweating, tremors and blurred vision. And, if too much is taken, ecstasy can cause a rapid heartbeat or high blood pressure, faintness, muscle cramping, panic attacks and even loss of consciousness or seizures.
It's described as a "club drug" because it's one of the substances frequently used by young adults at clubs, bars and all-night dance parties.
People who use the drug, however, say they've noted changes over time that they attribute to their ecstasy use, says Philip Murphy, a chartered psychologist from the Edge Hill College of Higher Education in Lancashire, England.
Real health dangers
Studying a group of 192 ecstasy users from England, the United States, Europe, Australia and Canada, Murphy and his colleagues found that 26.7 percent of the users reported feelings such as "sociable," "happy" and "loving," but a significant number of others described feelings such as depression, moodiness, paranoia and aggression.
"What we found when we looked at things over the time scale is that the positive effects that they report reduced over time," Murphy says. "There's very real health dangers."
Psychiatric problems also can increase with extended use of the drug, according to a second study presented today at a conference in London of the British Psychological Society.
People who combined multiple drugs with heavy use of ecstasy suffered the greatest impairments, says lead researcher Andrew Parrott, a psychology professor at the University of East London. He suspects this may be linked to impaired functioning of the neurotransmitter serotonin, caused by the use of ecstasy.
Parrott's team studied recreational drug use among 758 young people in Rome and Padua, Italy, and in London and Manchester, England.
Valerie Curran, a professor of psychopharmacology at University College London, explored this link in more detail in a third paper presented at the conference. Curran divided 96 participants into three groups -- non-users, former users (who had stopped at least a year before) and current users -- and then gave half the people in each group a drink of amino acids rich in tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin in the brain. The other participants drank the amino acids without tryptophan.
When Curran compared how well the participants could recall a passage of prose, ex-users who had drunk the tryptophan-rich mixture performed far better than those who had received the other mixture, she says.
"This could imply that either, like the monkeys [in previous studies], people who stop using ecstasy still have altered brain serotonin, or that people who stop using the drug might have pre-existing differences in their serotonin," Curran says.
Ecstasy users vary some, depending on where they live, the researchers report.
Comparing 121 British and 61 American users of ecstasy, another study co-authored by Murphy reveals that British users are significantly older, have been using the drug longer and have consulted more information sources about ecstasy than their American counterparts. But the British users take fewer safety precautions while using the drug, the study says.
More than half -- 54.1 percent -- of American users say they take fluids as a precaution, compared with 34.7 percent of British users, the study reports. Also, 27.9 percent of Americans claim to use vitamins as a precaution, compared with 16.5 percent of British users.
"U.K. users, broadly speaking, reported less positive reactions to the drug," says senior author John Fisk, a reader in psychology at Liverpool John Moores University in England. "That may have something to do with the different states between the U.S. and U.K. in terms of general history of use in the two countries."
Essentially, the researchers say, ecstasy's "honeymoon" is over in England, while the drug remains popular in the American rave, or all-night dance party scene.