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Well, That Explains the Soft Spots (12/11/03)
In work published in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, a group of psychiatrists have reported that a group of 'ecstasy' users they studied using MRI brain scans had a lower density of brain cells in some regions of their brains. According to the research team, these areas of reduced density were areas associated with memory function, producing the first evidence of structural differences in 'ecstasy' user's brains that could explain the verbal memory problems sometimes reported.
The researchers had theorized that differences in brain cell density might exist in 'ecstasy' users because serotonin plays a role in promoting the growth of brain cells. Thus, if neurotoxicity had occurred (damaging the serotonin system) some losses of brain density might be expected. The monkey wrench in this explanation is that even very heavy 'ecstasy' users don't show detectible long-term damage to their serotonin systems, suggesting that some other mechanism is at work (assuming further experiments produce similar findings.)
These findings of differences in the health of some areas of user's brains may be due to pre-existing differences (MDMA users have higher rates of mental illness even before their first use), although it may also be the result of repeated disruptions of the serotonin system by regular MDMA use. Call it an interesting but not terribly significant finding without more research to determine the cause.
Ref: Drug and Alcohol Dependence 72 (2003) 225-235 (Cowan et al.)