Executive working memory deficits in abstinent ecstasy/MDMA users: a critical review

Neuropsychobiology. 2009;60(3-4):159-75. doi: 10.1159/000253552. Epub 2009 Nov 5.


Aims: This review examined studies of executive functioning in abstinent ecstasy (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, MDMA) users on tasks which had been empirically mapped onto updating, shifting, inhibition and accessing long-term memory executive processes. Studies of some aspects of visuospatial memory performance were also included because of the investment of executive resources in such tasks.

Methods: Thirty-three studies were identified for the review following searches of the Psychinfo and Medline databases. Inclusion criteria were the reporting of new empirical findings from participants drug free at the time of testing, in peer-reviewed journals in the English language.

Results: Evidence for ecstasy-related performance deficits was strongest for the updating of verbal material, and for visuospatial memory tasks requiring additional processing beyond storage and retrieval. Such processing suggested that the overall level of executive demand was an important consideration. Executive shifting showed little evidence of ecstasy-related impairment, whilst examination of inhibition and long-term memory access presented an unclear picture.

Conclusions: All but one of the studies had a cross-sectional design. Although this is a potential weakness with regard to confounds, the necessity of such designs was acknowledged. Studies were generally aware of the need to control for potential confounds, especially the effects of other drugs, through a mixture of group designs and statistical techniques. It was recommended that future studies of executive functioning in ecstasy users should detail the relationship of the tasks and dependent variables reported to specific executive processes and consider the level of executive demand imposed by such tasks.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Executive Function / drug effects*
  • Hallucinogens / toxicity*
  • Humans
  • Memory Disorders / chemically induced*
  • Memory, Short-Term / drug effects*
  • N-Methyl-3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine / toxicity*


  • Hallucinogens
  • N-Methyl-3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine