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Br J Pharmacol. 2010 Sep;161(1):17-32. doi: 10.1111/j.1476-5381.2010.00899.x.

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine ('Ecstasy')-induced immunosuppression: a cause for concern?

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Neuroimmunology Research Group, Department of Physiology, School of Medicine, Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.


Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA; 'Ecstasy') is a ring-substituted amphetamine and a popular drug of abuse. In addition to ability to induce euphoria, MDMA abuse is associated with a range of acute and long-term hazardous effects. This paper is focused on once such adverse effect: its ability to negatively impact on functioning of the immune system. Research demonstrates that MDMA has immunosuppressive properties, with both innate and adaptive arms of the immune system being affected. The ability of MDMA to suppress innate immunity is indicated by impaired neutrophil phagocytosis and reduced production of dendritic cell/macrophage-derived pro-inflammatory cytokines including tumour necrosis factor-alpha, interleukin (IL)-1beta, IL-12 and IL-15. MDMA also suppresses innate IFN-gamma production, and considering the role of IFN-gamma in priming antigen-presenting cells, it is not surprising that MDMA reduces MHC class II expression on dendritic cells and macrophages, and inhibits co-stimulatory molecule expression. Paradoxically, studies demonstrate that MDMA elicits pro-inflammatory actions in the CNS by activating microglia, the resident innate immune cells in the brain. In terms of adaptive immunity, MDMA reduces circulating lymphocyte numbers, particularly CD4(+) T-cells; suppresses T-cell proliferation; and skews cytokine production in a Th(2) direction. For the most part, the immunosuppressive effects of MDMA cannot be attributed to a direct action of the drug on immune cells, but rather due to the release of endogenous immunomodulatory substances. In this regard, peripheral beta-adrenoceptors and cholinergic receptors have been shown to mediate some immunosuppressive effects of MDMA. Finally, we discuss emerging evidence indicating that MDMA-induced immunosuppression can translate into significant health risks for abusers.

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