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The Agony of Ecstasy

Long-term study of the cognitive effects of regular ecstasy use

Professor Konstantine Zakzanis has some good news and bad news for frequent users of the club drug ecstasy. The good news, he says, is that quitting will likely stop the progressive memory impairment caused by the drug. The bad news is it may not repair the memory damage already done.

Zakzanis, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, was the first researcher to launch a long-term study of the cognitive effects of regular ecstasy use in humans. In an earlier study of 15 users published in 2001, he found their performance on neuropsychological tests of learning and memory declined over one year.

His most recent study of the same 15 people at the two-year mark was slightly different, because eight of them had been abstinent for at least 32 weeks. The test scores of the continuing users had further deteriorated, while the scores of the former users were either better or the same as the previous year. Whether the quitters’ scores improved or remained static depended on the frequency and duration of their former ecstasy use – the heavier users were less likely to have recovered any learning and memory abilities.

For the next stage of his research, Zakzanis hopes to get a closer look at ecstasy’s impact on cognitive function. “I’d like to do a brain-imaging study of the sample group,” he says. “It would be interesting to determine if there are any functional changes in the brain.”

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