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November 2006 Issue

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Ecstasy Linked to Cell Survival

Published November 2006

New UC research suggests that the widely abused club drug “ecstasy,” or MDMA, can increase the survival of dopamine cells in the brain during fetal development.


Because of the role these cells play in the regulation of voluntary movement, the findings, the researchers say, may lead to better therapies for neurological diseases like Parkinson’s.


Led by Jack Lipton, PhD, professor of psychiatry, the study was presented in October at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Atlanta.

“We’re certainly not suggesting that this drug be used to treat diseases,” says Lipton. “But finding new methods to enhance the survival of dopamine neurons is critical in developing new drugs for diseases such as Parkinson’s.

“While MDMA itself isn’t likely to be an appropriate therapy for neurodegenerative diseases, it may provide insights for developing new drugs that have similar properties.

“It’s exciting to learn that an abused drug may have potential use for developing new therapeutics,” he adds. “It really makes you rethink your own preconceptions.”

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that has been found to regulate movement, balance, emotion and motivation, and it also affects pleasurable feelings in the brain. Researchers know that a loss of dopamine cells in the brain leads to the development of Parkinson’s disease and possibly other movement disorders.
Preventing dopamine cells from dying or finding ways to replace them is key to developing lasting therapies.

Lipton, director of the developmental neuroscience division in UC’s psychiatry department, studies the long-term effects of abused drugs on the developing central nervous system. He noticed, during previous laboratory studies in rats, that prenatal exposure to MDMA increased growth of dopamine cells in the brain. His team then decided to study exposure to MDMA in cultured embryonic cells—where they confirmed that this drug was in fact increasing dopamine cell survival.


The findings, Lipton says, aren’t consistent with what is known about adult brains, where MDMA has been shown to cause depletion of neurotransmitters— like dopamine—and has been linked to decreased brain activity.

MDMA, chemically known as methylenedioxymethamphetamine and sold and used illegally as “ecstasy,” is a synthetic stimulant that prompts the secretion of large amounts of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain.


This secretion can lead to prolonged periods of activity, hallucinations and euphoria. Before the United States banned it in 1985, MDMA was tested as a possible adjunct in psychotherapy. In 2001, the FDA agreed to allow MDMA to be tested as a possible treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health. Study coauthors include Nicholas Campbell, Timothy Collier, PhD, Katrina Paumier, Caryl Sortwell, PhD, and Emeline Tolod.

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