Reprinted from The New York Times, 22 November 2001
and Immune Function Reduced by Estasy
“Although ecstasy is perceived by users as safe,
this drug does have a dark side. There have been worrying reports
of the impact of ecstasy on the immune systems of mice and people
along with other troubling data.”
Does ecstasy make the immune system happy?
The popular recreational drug ecstasy — or more simply “E”
— causes users to experience feelings of bliss. Although ecstasy
is perceived by users as safe, this drug does have a dark side.
There have been worrying reports of long-term memory problems among
some former ecstasy users. More recently, researchers in the European
Union have been studying the impact of ecstasy on the immune systems
of mice and people and have found some troubling data.
Researchers enrolled 17 healthy male subjects for a series of short,
placebo-controlled studies of ecstasy. Subjects received 100 mg
ecstasy once or twice over a period of 24 hours. Blood samples were
collected before, during and after the study.
Results – a single dose
The researchers found that a single dose of ecstasy (100 mg) taken
by mouth caused a dramatic fall in the level of immune system cells
called T cells, which are needed to help fight infections. The number
of a specific group of T cells, called CD4+ cells, decreased by
about 30% within hours after a single dose of ecstasy. Fortunately,
within a day after taking this dose, CD4+ cell levels returned to
Results – two doses
Among subjects who received two doses of the drug, four hours apart,
the decline in CD4+ cells was even more serious, reaching a level
40% below normal. Although a day later T-cell levels rose, they
did not return to normal.
Another important finding is that ecstasy clearly reduced the ability
of T cells as well as other immune system cells to fight infections.
Why is ecstasy not immune friendly?
Perhaps these results should not be surprising as ecstasy is chemically
related to another group of chemicals called amphetamines. This
group of drugs does not enhance the health of the immune system.
The research team also found that exposure to ecstasy causes the
body to produce increased amounts of the hormone cortisol. This
hormone probably caused the CD4+ cell count to temporarily fall
because these cells moved from the blood to the lymph nodes and
tissues. They returned to the blood once cortisol levels returned
to normal. Higher-than-normal cortisol levels may also have been
the reason that the immune cells’ ability to fight infections
was reduced. In people with HIV/AIDS who use ecstasy, the
drug therefore has the potential to increase levels of HIV.
Furthermore, ecstasy can rise to deadly levels among those who
use anti-HIV drugs known as protease inhibitors and non-nukes (non-nucleoside
reverse transcriptase inhibitors).
Another point to consider is that the researchers used relatively
pure ecstasy. In the real world, it is not uncommon to find ecstasy
blended with a small amount of amphetamine or LSD. Unlike the situation
with licensed drugs, no independent agencies have the authority
to conduct quality- control tests to ensure that chemical contaminants
are removed from the final product. Nor are there any agencies that
have the power to force ecstasy manufacturers to conduct studies
on the impact of this drug on the health of users. Given the increasing
popularity of ecstasy, harm reduction experts have their work cut
out for them.
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