Rationale: Recreational use of "ecstasy" (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine; MDMA) has become increasingly widespread. Until recently, however, little was known about the possible persistent psychological effects of extensive use of this drug.
Objective: The aim of the present review is to evaluate recent empirical evidence concerning the persistent psychological sequelae of recreational ecstasy use.
Methods: The methodologies of open trial studies of recreational ecstasy users are evaluated and reports of the presence or absence of persistent psychological problems are related to the extent of past exposure to ecstasy.
Results: There is growing evidence that chronic, heavy, recreational use of ecstasy is associated with sleep disorders, depressed mood, persistent elevation of anxiety, impulsiveness and hostility, and selective impairment of episodic memory, working memory and attention. There is tentative evidence that these cognitive deficits persist for at least 6 months after abstinence, whereas anxiety and hostility remit after a year of abstinence. The possibility that some of these psychological problems are caused by ecstasy-induced neurotoxicity is supported by preclinical evidence of MDMA-induced neurotoxicity and behavioural deficits, evidence of depleted serotonin in heavy ecstasy users, and by dose-response relationships between the extent of exposure to ecstasy and the severity of cognitive impairments.
Conclusions: An increasing number of young, heavy ecstasy users are at significant risk of persistent cognitive impairments and disturbances of affect and personality. Some of these problems may remit after abstinence, but residual neurotoxicity and decline of serotonergic function with age may result in recurrent psychopathology and premature cognitive decline.