Cognitive Ecstasy

Your Brain on MDMA


In 2003 scientists funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) had to retract flawed animal research that purportedly linked MDMA, a.k.a. Ecstasy, to brain damage. Perhaps as a result of that chastening experience, NIDA funded a $1.8 million study to take a closer look at the performance of Ecstasy users on cognitive tests. Unlike earlier research, this study, published by the journal Addiction in February, found essentially no difference between MDMA users and controls.

The researchers, led by John Halpern of the Laboratory for Integrative Psychiatry, took into account four factors that may explain why MDMA users in other studies did not score as well as non-users: consumption of other drugs, intoxication during the study, pre-existing differences in cognitive ability, and the rave lifestyle, which often includes sleep and fluid deprivation. After Halpern and his co-authors controlled for these variables, the test gap disappeared.

"We found little evidence of decreased cognitive performance in ecstasy users," the researchers reported, "save for poorer strategic self-regulation, possibly reflecting increased impulsivity." They added that "this finding might have reflected a pre-morbid attribute of ecstasy users, rather than a residual neurotoxic effect of the drug."

Despite these reassuring results, Halpern cautioned in a press release that "Ecstasy consumption is dangerous," since "illegally made pills can contain harmful contaminants, there are no warning labels, there is no medical supervision, and in rare cases people are physically harmed and even die from overdosing." He did not mention that all these hazards are either created or exacerbated by prohibition, which makes drug quality unreliable, pushes consumption underground, and impedes the dissemination of reliable guidelines for responsible use.