Neurocognitive impairments in MDMA and other drug users: MDMA alone may not be a cognitive risk factor

J Clin Exp Neuropsychol. 2010 Apr;32(4):337-49. doi: 10.1080/13803390903042361.


Background: MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine; "Ecstasy") is an amphetamine derivative with mild hallucinogenic and stimulant qualities. MDMA leads to serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine; 5-HT) neurotoxicity and has been linked to cognitive impairments. It remains unclear whether these impairments are due to MDMA versus other drug use.

Method: Neurocognitive functioning was measured in a sample of abstinent polydrug users (n = 52) with a range of MDMA use and healthy nondrug controls (n = 29). Participants completed a comprehensive neuropsychological battery and self-report measures of drug use.

Results: Polydrug users performed worse than controls on spatial span and spatial working memory (ps < .05). Among polydrug users, lifetime marijuana use significantly predicted verbal learning and memory performance (p < .01), while MDMA use was not predictive of cognitive impairment.

Conclusions: This study and our previous report (Hanson, Luciana, & Sullwold, 2008) suggest that moderate MDMA use does not lead to persistent impairments above and beyond that associated with generally heavy drug use, but polydrug use may lead to dose-related temporal and frontoparietal dysfunction. Marijuana use may be particularly problematic. Cause-effect relations are unclear.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cognition Disorders / chemically induced
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology*
  • Female
  • Hallucinogens / adverse effects
  • Hallucinogens / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Mental Recall / drug effects
  • Mental Recall / physiology
  • N-Methyl-3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine / adverse effects
  • N-Methyl-3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine / pharmacology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Space Perception / physiology
  • Statistics, Nonparametric
  • Substance-Related Disorders / complications*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / etiology*
  • Verbal Learning / drug effects
  • Verbal Learning / physiology
  • Young Adult


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