Rationale: Cognitive deficits have been reported in recreational 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, "ecstasy") users. In rats and other animal species, acute MDMA administration produces an impairment in passive avoidance and other learning tasks. Different studies have shown that this learning deficit is not strictly related to the pronounced serotonin (5-HT) depletion induced by the drug.
Objectives: This study was aimed at determining if acute MDMA administration induces in the rat hippocampus early molecular changes related to memory impairment in a passive avoidance task. The membrane expression of key molecules in memory consolidation, such as the NR1 and NR2B subunits of the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor, Ca2+/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II (CaMKII) and protein phosphatase 1 (PP1) was measured. Some of these studies were also performed after 5-HT depletion induced by the 5-HT synthesis inhibitor p-chlorophenylalanine (PCPA).
Methods: Neurochemical studies were performed in rats treated with MDMA and killed 90 min later and also in rats subjected to passive avoidance 30 min after MDMA treatment. Western blotting was used for measuring the levels of NMDA receptor subunits, CAMKII and PP1. Enzyme activity assays were also performed.
Results: In hippocampal membrane extracts, passive avoidance training increased NMDA receptor NR1 subunit expression as well as CaMKII levels and phosphorylated CaMKII. In untrained rats, MDMA reduced NR1 and NR2B protein levels, membrane CaMKII levels and enzyme activity, and enhanced PP1 levels and activity. In trained rats, MDMA prevented the learning-specific increase in NR1 subunit expression and membrane CaMKII/pCaMKII levels. After pronounced 5-HT depletion by PCPA, MDMA impaired passive avoidance retention to a similar extent and also prevented the training-associated changes in NR1 levels and CaMKII activity.
Conclusions: Diminished function of hippocampal CaMKII and reduced levels of synaptic NMDA receptor subunits appear to be involved in the impairment of passive avoidance learning induced in rats by acute MDMA treatment.