Background: (+/-)3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, "Ecstasy") is a popular recreational drug that selectively damages brain serotonin (5-HT) neurons in animals at doses that closely approach those used by humans. We investigated the status of brain 5-HT neurons in MDMA users.
Methods: We enrolled 14 previous users of MDMA who were currently abstaining from use and 15 controls who had never used MDMA. We used positron emission tomography (PET) with the radioligand carbon-11-labelled McN-5652, which selectively labels the 5-HT transporter. We analysed whether there were differences in 5-HT transporter binding between abstinent MDMA users and participants in the control group. Blood and urine samples were taken and tested to check for abstinence.
Findings: MDMA users showed decreased global and regional brain 5-HT transporter binding compared with controls. Decreases in 5-HT transporter binding positively correlated with the extent of previous MDMA use.
Interpretation: Quantitative PET studies with a ligand selective for 5-HT transporters can be used to assess the status of 5-HT neurons in the living human brain. We show direct evidence of a decrease in a structural component of brain 5-HT neurons in human MDMA users.