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Evidence of MDMA-induced damage to brain cells (5/22/04)
At high doses, MDMA has long been known to be able to damage the axons (long 'communication cables') of serotonin neurons. More recently, researchers have found evidence that MDMA exposure can also result in damage to the cell bodies of neurons.
In the most recent experiment, rats were injected with 10, 20, or 40 mg/kg of MDMA. Slices of their brains were then treated with a fluorescent dye that binds to neurons that are breaking down, making them glow green when the brain tissue is placed under ultraviolet light.
A few of the animals receiving the 10 mg/kg dose showed signs of degenerating neurons, while all animals did at the 20 and 40 mg/kg doses. The researchers report that damage corresponded to the degree of overheating the animals suffered; all animals that showed damage had reached a body temperature of more than 40.6º C (105º F). Such overheating stresses brain cells by itself, presumably enhancing the toxicity of the MDMA.
Such findings are not necessarily a cause of concern for human recreational users of the drug, however; there is little evidence of even axon loss among human users, much less the more serious level of damage that neuron death would represent. This incongruity between the theoretical risks extrapolated from animal experiments and the lack of clear-cut injury in human users remains one of the more interesting and little examined aspects of MDMA pharmacology.