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Debating the Dangers of Ecstasy

Party Drug Is Linked to Growing Number of Deaths

LONDON, OCT. 5, 2002 ( Concern is growing over the party drug ecstasy. The Spanish paper ABC reported July 7 on a study showing traces of the mildly psychedelic derivative of amphetamine in the bodies of 140 people during the last 10 years. In the first half 2002 just over 900,000 tablets of ecstasy were seized by authorities in Spain, compared with 860,000 for the whole of 2001.

Thirty-eight of the deaths were due directly to the consumption of ecstasy, while in the other cases additional drugs were also detected in the corpses. The report, published by the National Institute of Toxicology, noted that ecstasy users combine their consumption of this drug with other harmful substances: 93.1% with hashish; 91.4% with alcohol; 87.3% with tobacco; and 53% with cocaine.

According to Pilar Sáiz, a medical psychology professor at the University of Oviedo, consumption of ecstasy leads to premature aging, with a deterioration of cerebral functions occurring at a much earlier age in users of the drug.

Apart from the immediate physical problems caused by ecstasy — such as interference with the heart, high fever and hallucinations — the report noted that long-term use of ecstasy is associated with psychiatric problems. Among these are paranoid psychosis, depression, anxiety and panic attacks, and memory damage.

A study of England and Wales by St. George’s Hospital found 40 ecstasy-related deaths in 2001 — twice the 2000 figure, and nearly four times the 1998 level, BBC reported July 29.

In Italy the newspaper La Stampa on Sept. 22 reported on fears about the effects of ecstasy. The paper observed that some clinics in Los Angeles are full of adolescents who, free of their physical addiction to ecstasy and other synthetic drugs, are afflicted with incurable psychiatric problems.

Clandestine laboratories now manufacture large quantities of ecstasy at ever-lower prices — and often laced with other harmful substances that users are unaware of.

A three-day workshop just held in Turin on drug-related questions heard evidence that up to 400,000 youths in Italy consume ecstasy. Its use is particularly common, as elsewhere, among those who frequent discos.

Polemics over harmful effects

A recent study, however, raised doubts over how much brain damage is caused by ecstasy. Three researchers published a study in the September issue of the Psychologist, a magazine of the British Psychological Society. They claim that some of the studies published on this question are flawed.

Ecstasy, they noted, produces long-term changes in the structure and function of the brains of various species. These changes involve the neurotransmitter serotonin. But, they add, the cells themselves do not seem to be affected, only the nerve fibers, which can regenerate.

They also criticized the methodology of some studies that purported to show brain damage due to ecstasy. They questioned if the samples of users studied are really representative of the population. Some studies may also be defective due to educational differences between the control groups and ecstasy users. Differences in the cognitive abilities of the two groups may well be due to their level of schooling, the researchers contended.

The authors also question the reliability of some data on the quantities of ecstasy consumed. Another problem is the combination of ecstasy with other drugs, making it difficult to identify a causal relationship between ecstasy and addicts’ problems.

Nevertheless, the authors clearly recognize the very legitimate public health concerns related to ecstasy use. The Guardian newspaper, which published an overly optimistic interpretation of the research’s implications for ecstasy users, ran a correction Sept. 4. The editors noted: “One of the psychologists quoted in our report, Dr. Jon Cole, has asked us to make it clear that he has never said that ecstasy was not dangerous.”

Moreover the editor of the Psychologist pointed out to the newspaper that the magazine article also states “no one should underestimate the dangers of illegally using controlled drugs. There is the very real possibility that ecstasy use will cause long-term damage to the brain.”

A peer commentary published by the Psychologist along with the article accepts that there are some methodological defects in studies on ecstasy use. But, observed Michael Morgan, senior lecturer in experimental psychology at the University of Sussex, the authors of the critical study may have underestimated the level of consumption by regular ecstasy users.

Morgan’s main objection however is that the Psychologist article tends to ignore the overwhelming evidence that regular ecstasy users suffer from impulsive behavior and deficits in verbal memory performance, and that these deficits are specifically associated with past use of ecstasy.

Further criticism came from Andy Parrott in another accompanying reaction published by the magazine.

Parrott, head of the Recreational Drugs Research Group at the University of East London, admitted that some studies have been deficient. But, he maintained, later and more sophisticated research clearly indicates damage to memory and learning capacity in ecstasy users. These studies took into account the possibility of other drug use.

Brain damage due to ecstasy is particularly notable among the heavier users, according to studies cited by Parrott. He also quoted the case of a former heavy user, who had not taken ecstasy for seven years, but is still suffering from multiple physical and psychological problems.

Confirmation by more recent studies of the danger of ecstasy came from an article published in the journal Psychopharmacology, BBC reported June 19. The study, by scientists from the universities of Cambridge and East London, found that even short-term use of ecstasy could damage the memory.

The research team studied 40 adults between the ages of 18 and 48. All had used a variety of drugs including cocaine, LSD, marijuana and amphetamine. Half used ecstasy regularly, and half had never used it. A series of tests showed that the ecstasy users had significant problems in memory and visual recognition tests.

“These findings of memory problems due to ecstasy use should raise concerns, particularly since the group studied were only early-stage and not long-term users,” said Dr. Barbara Sahakian, reader in clinical neuropsychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Cambridge.

While governments and experts debate the problem of drug abuse, concerned parents can take comfort for a recent study showing that one way to discourage their children from using drugs is by strong family ties.

The research was based on interviews with almost 4,000 boys and girls from cities in England, Ireland, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, according to the Telegraph on May 10. Answers revealed that a strong maternal bond was the most effective barrier to abuse. Living with both parents was also an important though lesser factor, said Dr. Paul McArdle of Newcastle University, who led the study.

“This study shows that the quality of family life, or rather the lack of it for many young people, is at the core of the drugs problem in Western society,” he said. Researchers say the findings underlined “the unique role of mothers in regulating the behavior of the majority of young people.”

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