Researchers in Spain have isolated for the first time a by-product of the illicit drug Ecstasy that is believed to cause some of the brain damage associated with the drug. They believe their finding will help them measure, with greater precision, the long-term neurotoxicity of Ecstasy in human users.
The report will be published in the September issue of Chemical Research in Toxicology, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society.
The findings may corroborate speculation that HHMA (3,4 dihydroxymethamphetamine), is at least partially responsible for Ecstasy’s harm to the human brain, according to lead researcher Rafael de la Torre, D.Pharm., of the Municipal Institute of Medical Research in Barcelona. Previous study had linked HHMA to many of Ecstasy’s known side effects, but until now researchers had not been able to accurately measure the amounts of HHMA in users.
HHMA is created when Ecstasy (known chemically as MDMA, or 3,4- methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is metabolized through the liver. Animal studies have shown Ecstasy to damage the brain’s thought and memory function, but research has indicated that such side effects don’t develop until the drug is metabolized. Accurately measuring the amount and concentration of HHMA in a person’s body can provide new insight into the drug’s effects, including how it is metabolized, and possibly determine its long-term effects, de la Torre said. HHMA does not occur naturally in the body and thus would not be found in a non-user of Ecstasy, he noted.
“This observation concerns not only Ecstasy’s acute effects, but more interestingly, its mid- and long-term neurotoxicity,” de la Torre said. “The detection of HHMA was hampered up to now by problems measuring it in humans, which we have solved.”
The research represents the first validated method for measuring HHMA in body fluids, according to de la Torre. It involved four men who each volunteered to take a 100-milligram dose of Ecstasy and submit blood and urine samples regularly for the following 24 hours. All were described as regular users of the drug. The researchers found nearly identical concentrations of HHMA and MDMA in the samples, establishing HHMA as a likely contributor to conditions associated with Ecstasy use, de la Torre said.
In widespread use since the 1980s, Ecstasy is a stimulant with effects similar to the short-term euphoria and increased alertness claimed by cocaine users, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It is considered dangerous, however, since it has been shown to damage nerve cells in the brain critical for thought and memory, NIDA reports. Other experiments show that people who take MDMA score lower on memory tests and that animals have persistent effects from the drug six to seven years after exposure.
The research cited above was funded by the Spanish government and the Spanish National Plan on Drugs in Madrid.
Rafael de la Torre, D. Pharm., is a researcher in the pharmacology research unit at the Municipal Institute of Medical Research in Barcelona and a professor of toxicology and pharmacology at the Autonomous University in Barcelona.