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Study Links Ecstasy's Effect to Parkinson's

Health: Animal tests show the party drug can lead to severe brain damage and disease symptoms such as loss of motor skills.

September 27, 2002|LINDA MARSA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even one typical night's use of the club drug Ecstasy may damage nerve cells in the brain responsible for movement, increasing the risk of Parkinson's disease and similar disorders, researchers report today.

The findings were based on animal studies in which monkeys and baboons were given the kinds of doses that users might consume at all-night dance parties. The animals suffered profound neurological damage, according to results published in the journal Science, and lost 60% to 80% of the brain cells that transmit dopamine, a brain chemical that regulates movement.

"We've never seen an effect of this magnitude before, and we were surprised that one session caused this much damage," said Dr. George A. Ricaurte, a study coauthor and a neurologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Ecstasy gained popularity in the '90s as part of the rave club scene, and young partygoers sometimes take three or four doses over several hours.

Previous animal studies had shown that the drug damages as much as 30% to 40% of serotonin neurons, which produce a brain chemical that regulates mood and behavior. This depletion may account for the emotional letdown habitual users often experience after weekend Ecstasy binges, experts say.

The drug's effect on dopamine was twice as severe, which is worrisome because it may predispose even occasional users to neurological problems, the researchers said. Because there is only one known case of an Ecstasy user having movement problems, the lack of obvious or immediate harmful effects contributes to "the misperception that Ecstasy is a safe drug," Ricaurte said.

But Parkinson's symptoms usually don't emerge until individuals lose more than 80% to 90% of their dopamine neurons. Because dopamine levels decline as people age, Ecstasy users may be placing themselves at risk of developing symptoms of the motor disorder, Ricaurte said.

Some scientists, however, said the findings might not apply to humans.

"This study is seriously flawed and the interpretation misleading," said Dr. Charles S. Grob, director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance. The animals in the experiment were injected with Ecstasy, and that can be much more toxic than ingesting the drug orally, which is how it is normally used, he said.

And while illicit street use is "dangerous because the drug is often adulterated with harmful compounds," he said, any possible brain cell damage is probably not permanent.

Researchers said the next step is to determine the drug's neurological effect on humans. Scientists at Johns Hopkins are doing brain imaging scans on habitual Ecstasy users to see if they have dopamine and serotonin deficits, but test results aren't yet available.

Still, this is an important study because it demonstrates Ecstasy may seriously damage two key systems in the brain, those controlling movement and mood, said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science, and former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Bethesda, Md.

"This should send a clear message that trying Ecstasy for even one night is like playing Russian roulette with your brain," Leshner said.

The study was funded by the U.S. Public Health Service.

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