Lost in translation: preclinical studies on 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine provide information on mechanisms of action, but do not allow accurate prediction of adverse events in humans

Br J Pharmacol. 2012 Jul;166(5):1523-36. doi: 10.1111/j.1476-5381.2011.01819.x.


3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) induces both acute adverse effects and long-term neurotoxic loss of brain 5-HT neurones in laboratory animals. However, when choosing doses, most preclinical studies have paid little attention to the pharmacokinetics of the drug in humans or animals. The recreational use of MDMA and current clinical investigations of the drug for therapeutic purposes demand better translational pharmacology to allow accurate risk assessment of its ability to induce adverse events. Recent pharmacokinetic studies on MDMA in animals and humans are reviewed and indicate that the risks following MDMA ingestion should be re-evaluated. Acute behavioural and body temperature changes result from rapid MDMA-induced monoamine release, whereas long-term neurotoxicity is primarily caused by metabolites of the drug. Therefore acute physiological changes in humans are fairly accurately mimicked in animals by appropriate dosing, although allometric dosing calculations have little value. Long-term changes require MDMA to be metabolized in a similar manner in experimental animals and humans. However, the rate of metabolism of MDMA and its major metabolites is slower in humans than rats or monkeys, potentially allowing endogenous neuroprotective mechanisms to function in a species specific manner. Furthermore acute hyperthermia in humans probably limits the chance of recreational users ingesting sufficient MDMA to produce neurotoxicity, unlike in the rat. MDMA also inhibits the major enzyme responsible for its metabolism in humans thereby also assisting in preventing neurotoxicity. These observations question whether MDMA alone produces long-term 5-HT neurotoxicity in human brain, although when taken in combination with other recreational drugs it may induce neurotoxicity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blood Proteins / metabolism
  • Drug Evaluation, Preclinical
  • Hallucinogens / adverse effects*
  • Hallucinogens / blood
  • Hallucinogens / pharmacokinetics
  • Humans
  • N-Methyl-3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine / adverse effects*
  • N-Methyl-3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine / blood
  • N-Methyl-3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine / pharmacokinetics
  • Neurotoxicity Syndromes / etiology*
  • Neurotoxicity Syndromes / metabolism
  • Protein Binding
  • Species Specificity


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