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Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012 Apr;69(4):399-409. doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.156. Epub 2011 Dec 5.

Evidence for chronically altered serotonin function in the cerebral cortex of female 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine polydrug users.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry, School of Medicine, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, TN 37212, USA.



MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, also popularly known as "ecstasy") is a popular recreational drug that produces loss of serotonin axons in animal models. Whether MDMA produces chronic reductions in serotonin signaling in humans remains controversial.


To determine whether MDMA use is associated with chronic reductions in serotonin signaling in the cerebral cortex of women as reflected by increased serotonin(2A) receptor levels.


Cross-sectional case-control study comparing serotonin(2A) receptor levels in abstinent female MDMA polydrug users with those in women who did not use MDMA (within-group design assessing the association of lifetime MDMA use and serotonin(2A) receptors). Case participants were abstinent from MDMA use for at least 90 days as verified by analysis of hair samples. The serotonin(2A) receptor levels in the cerebral cortex were determined using serotonin(2A)-specific positron emission tomography with radioligand fluorine 18-labeled setoperone as the tracer.


Academic medical center research laboratory.


A total of 14 female MDMA users and 10 women who did not use MDMA (controls). The main exclusion criteria were nondrug-related DSM-IV Axis I psychiatric disorders and general medical illness.


Cortical serotonin(2A) receptor nondisplaceable binding potential (serotonin(2A)BP(ND)).


MDMA users had increased serotonin(2A)BP(ND) in occipital-parietal (19.7%), temporal (20.5%), occipitotemporal-parietal (18.3%), frontal (16.6%), and frontoparietal (18.5%) regions (corrected P < .05). Lifetime MDMA use was positively associated with serotonin(2A)BP(ND) in frontoparietal (β = 0.665; P = .007), occipitotemporal (β = 0.798; P = .002), frontolimbic (β = 0.634; P = .02), and frontal (β = 0.691; P = .008) regions. In contrast, there were no regions in which MDMA use was inversely associated with receptor levels. There were no statistically significant effects of the duration of MDMA abstinence on serotonin(2A)BP(ND).


The recreational use of MDMA is associated with long-lasting increases in serotonin(2A) receptor density. Serotonin(2A) receptor levels correlate positively with lifetime MDMA use and do not decrease with abstinence. These results suggest that MDMA use produces chronic serotonin neurotoxicity in humans. Given the broad role of serotonin in human brain function, the possibility for therapeutic MDMA use, and the widespread recreational popularity of this drug, these results have critical public health implications.

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