Despite its widespread use by young people, particularly at so-called rave parties and college, the drug known as ecstasy may not be as harmless as many think. In fact, researchers from Vanderbilt University have found evidence that use of ecstasy can cause chronic changes to the human brain. Writing in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, the research team says that their research has shown that use of ecstasy produces long lasting changes to serotonin levels in the brain, which they say is not something that has been studied as yet, so no one really knows what impact having lowered levels of serotonin will have on a person as they go on to live the rest of their life.
Serotonin, as most people know, is the chemical in the brain responsible for the sensations of pleasure and euphoria. Drugs such as ecstasy cause a temporary rise in the level of serotonin, which is why those that take it experience such emotions and sensations; unfortunately though, it appears that those who take ecstasy are messing with their serotonin levels and that those changes can become permanent, as a new lowered natural level takes over. At this point, the authors can only speculate as to what impact that might have, but it appears likely that reduced serotonin levels may lead to problems later on with depression.
What is particullary interesting is that most people start using ecstasy when in college and this is why some colleges run a strict drug-testing regimen and there could be tests to check for the presence of these adulterants, but there are still ways to pass a college drug test (source)
To find out what was going on with people that took ecstasy, the researchers took Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans of a large group of female volunteers, half of which had used ecstasy before, and half of which did not. In so doing, they found that chronic users had higher levels of serotonin receptors than did non users which correlates with a past history of heightened serotonin levels. What was perhaps most disturbing was that it appeared that the more a person had used ecstasy, the more brain changes were evident, and that those that had take then drug a long time in the past, still showed signs of serotonin level changes, indicating that it’s possible they will never return to normal.
The group also makes note of the fact that the CDC estimates that as many as sixteen million people in the US have used ecstasy at one time or another, indicating that there are likely to be a lot of people with medical problems in the future as these people grow older. Reduced levels of serotonin are commonly seen in elderly patients, and those that reach old age with already lowered levels are likely to experience not only symptoms of depression, but perhaps signs of dementia as well.