Prenatal exposure to MDMA alters noradrenergic neurodevelopment in the rat

Neurotoxicol Teratol. 2012 Jan-Feb;34(1):206-13. doi: 10.1016/ Epub 2011 Sep 28.


3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA; ecstasy) binds with high affinity to the norepinephrine transporter (NET), making the noradrenergic system a potential target during fetal exposure. Recent data indicate that adult rats that had been prenatally exposed to MDMA display persistent deficits in working memory and attention; behaviors consistent with abnormal noradrenergic signaling in the forebrain. The present study was designed to investigate whether prenatal exposure to MDMA from embryonic days 14-20 affects the structure and/or function of the noradrenergic system of the rat on postnatal day 21. Offspring that were prenatally exposed to MDMA exhibited an increase in noradrenergic fiber density in the prelimbic region of the prefrontal cortex and the CA1 region of the hippocampus that was not accompanied by an increase in the number of noradrenergic neurons in the locus coeruleus. Direct tissue autoradiography using tritiated nisoxetine demonstrated that while NET binding was not altered in the prelimbic cortex, the dentate gyrus, or the locus coeruleus, it was increased in the CA1, CA2, and CA3 regions of the hippocampus. Basal levels of norepinephrine were increased in the prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens of MDMA-exposed rats, as compared to saline-treated controls. These findings indicate that prenatal exposure to MDMA results in structural changes in the noradrenergic system as well as functional alterations in NE neurotransmission in structures that are critical in attentional processing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adrenergic Neurons / drug effects*
  • Adrenergic Neurons / pathology*
  • Adrenergic Uptake Inhibitors / toxicity*
  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Cell Count
  • Cell Differentiation / drug effects
  • Cell Differentiation / physiology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Female
  • Male
  • Microscopy / methods
  • N-Methyl-3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine / toxicity*
  • Nerve Fibers, Myelinated / pathology
  • Neurogenesis / drug effects*
  • Neurogenesis / physiology
  • Neurotoxicity Syndromes / pathology
  • Neurotoxicity Syndromes / physiopathology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / metabolism
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / pathology
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / physiopathology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley


  • Adrenergic Uptake Inhibitors
  • N-Methyl-3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine