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What's NeXT? The mother of all Ecstasy studies begins to bear fruit (12/1/06)
Recently there has been a small rash of news stories to the effect of 'new research shows using ecstasy even once unsafe'. They are referring to some of the early results from the NeXT Study, a massive research project by the government of the Netherlands to track potential 'ecstasy' users over time, regularly and thoroughly poking and prodding them with everything from psych evaluations to sophisticated brain scans to see how 'ecstasy' affects them. This study, the first of its kind, is expected to provide comprehensive, 'final word' evidence on what sort of harm (if any) is occurring as a result of 'ecstasy' use.
The initial findings of the study (which focused on people who had only used 'ecstasy' once or a few times) are rather interesting:
1. Symptoms of depression declined by 28% after they had used 'ecstasy'; their mental health appeared to be better after use than before.
2. Every test to look for the sort of brain injury that has been seen in lab animals failed to find any sign of damage in the people who had used 'ecstasy'. In the words of the researchers themselves, "we found no indications for structural neuronal damage after a low dose of ecstasy use in first time ecstasy users."
3. There were small differences in blood flow in some parts of the brains of the people who had used 'ecstasy'; the largest difference was 3.5% in one small region.
Surely this is good news, yes? Not only did the (infrequent) 'ecstasy' users seem to be free of neurological injury, they were happier for the experience! But of course, that isn't how the pro-Prohibition press is spinning the story. Instead, they've clung to that last point, the small changes in blood flow in a few small areas of the brain, as proof that even a single use of MDMA ('ecstasy') causes brain damage.
The researchers themselves have repeatedly said that the changes could simply be due to MDMA's disruptive effect on the serotonin system (which strongly affects blood flow/blood vessel constriction.) Indeed, past studies have also found changes in blood flow within the brain after MDMA use, but that the changes were only temporary. This is consistent with findings that, after exposure to MDMA, the number of available serotonin receptors temporarily declines.
In the end, this early report seems to confirm, rather than overturn, my long-standing position that MDMA use has a temporary disruptive effect on the brain, but (at least in moderation) is not causing the sort of brain injury that was invoked as a justification for criminalizing it.