Australian researchers studying the effects of drug use in the real world, attended parties where people were using a particular drug known as ecstasy (which often also contains a variety of other drugs), discovering that the drug posed far greater risk on users’ brains than anyone previously believed.
Dr. Thomas Newton, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine, who was not involved in the study, told Reuters that what was most concerning “is that most studies looking at toxicity in people or animals look at a single drug.”
“We have no idea what happens when you start mixing like this,” he added.
For the study, 56 people who had used ecstasy at least 5 times in the past allowed researchers to attend parties with them where they used ecstasy once again.
The researchers collected pill samples and also measured users’ blood levels of MDMA — a chemical found in the drug — every hour for five hours after the drug was taken. For participating and following through with the study, each user received the equivalent of 205 US dollars.
The team of researchers found that the amount of MDMA in some of the users reached levels that can cause severe brain injury or death in primates.
Only half of the pills taken consisted entirely of MDMA. The other half also contained methamphetamine or other chemicals related to MDMA. Some of the pills had no MDMA at all. But in the ones that did contain MDMA, the levels ranged from 25 mg to as much as 250 mg.
“This highlights a significant public health concern, particularly regarding the existence of pills containing more than 200 mg of MDMA,” the authors wrote.
The researchers also noted that number of pills taken by the participants varied as well. Most of the users ingested more than one pill, and some took as many as five in a single night.
“Taking multiple pills is likely to lead to very high blood concentration, which may be harmful,” Dr. Rod Irvine, lead author of the study, published in the journal Addiction, told Reuters Health in an email.
“We were surprised that the…concentrations continued to rise throughout the study,” Irvine, a professor at the University of Adelaide, said. “The higher levels are approaching those that have been shown to be damaging to brain cells in animal models.”
Three of the participants had blood concentrations greater than 700 mg/L, which in primates was found to be highly poisonous in lab studies. Another three of the users had concentrations close to that level.
Irvine said that most users continued to take more ecstasy throughout the night, even though blood concentration levels from their first pill had not reached peak levels.
It is possible that users may develop a tolerance to the drug while they are using it, noted the authors, adding that it could make them feel less intoxicated even while blood concentrations continue to increase.
The authors also noted that none of the ecstasy users in the study suffered any immediate health problems after using the pills.
The US National Institute on Drug Abuse states that ecstasy can interfere with heart rate and temperature regulation and can cause brain damage.
Irvine said that collecting data in the real world is a valuable way to get a sense of what people are actually exposing themselves to. In fourteen of the ecstasy users in the study, the amount of MDMA in the blood reached levels that had never been studied in humans in the lab, he said.
In lab studies, ethical considerations prevent researchers from testing such potentially damaging and deadly doses in people, so the amounts they experiment with “do not reflect the range used naturally,” Irvine wrote in the study report.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that seven in every 100 twelfth-grade students say they have tried ecstasy.
The research was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia.
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