Does ecstasy cause long-term cognitive dysfunction?

February 21, 2011, 9:02 pm


Residual neurocognitive features of long-term ecstasy users with minimal exposure to other drugs. Halpern JH et al. Addiction. 2010 Oct 26. doi: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2010.03252.x. [Epub ahead of print]


Unaccustomed as I am to borrowing phrases from Sarah Palin, I’d have to say that the “lame stream” media (and the blogosphere) got the story about this paper all wrong.  Bear with me while I explain.

The authors begin by noting that while some previous research suggested the ecstasy use caused residual cognitive impairment, they often involved huge potential confounding factors.  This study was elaborately designed to minimize confounders, such as participation in the “rave” culture or heavy use of drugs other than ecstasy.  Subjects were given an extensive battery of tests measuring cognitive function.  After extensive statistical analysis,  the authors conclude that they “failed to demonstrate marked residual cognitive effects in ecstasy users”.

By and large, this was played in press coverage as if ecstasy received a clean bill of health, at least in terms of cognitive function:

“Ecstasy does not wreck the mind, study claims.” The Guardian (U.K.)

“Ecstasy doesn’t damage brain.” Slate

No brain damage from ecstasy, new research shows.” The Huffington Post

“Ecstasy does not cause brain damage.” DoseNation

Actually the study neither showed nor claimed that ecstasy did not cause brain damage.  Among other things, the study group contained only 6 participants with histories of very high ecstasy exposure (> 150 exposures). The authors are admirably cautious in stating their conclusions, advising only “continued caution in ascribing neuropsychological deficits to ecstasy exposure”, and finally concluding that “the neurotoxicity of human ecstasy use remains incompletely resolved”.


  1. Rosalind Says:

    Makes you wonder about the cognitive function of reporters, doesn’t it?

  2. Leon Says:


    My impression was that the author of the original news report, Robin McKie from The Guardian (U.K.), didn’t read the original paper but based the report on an interview with John Halpern, its main author. Halpern, it seems to me, went far beyond the carefully phrased conclusions in the paper, appearing to suggest that ecstasy itself is perfectly safe — a nonsensical claim. The drug has been associated with a number of fatalities which could not be atrributed to contaminants. The other follow-up stories on the blogosphere also did not analyze the paper, but had the smell of cut-and-paste jobs.