Ecstasy Can Harm Fetus Development

ecstasy being handed over at a house party

 Sturti / Getty Images

Most women who are doing the drug Ecstasy will quit immediately when they find out there are pregnant. But, what about their unborn child before they found out?

Can Ecstasy (MDMA) negatively affect a fetus in the very early stages of development?

To find out, researchers at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago studied 21-day-old rat pups who were exposed to Ecstasy during a period corresponding to the first trimester of human pregnancy.

Dr. Jack W. Lipton and colleagues injected eight pregnant rats twice daily with MDMA from day 14 through day 20 of pregnancy, a period corresponding to the first three months of human fetal development. The scientists injected saline twice daily during the same period to another eight pregnant control rats.

The investigators then examined the brain tissue of the rat pups when they were 21 days old, which is equivalent to a two- to six-year-old child.

Drastic Changes Observed

"Our most striking finding was that 21-day-old ecstasy-exposed pups had a 502-percent increase in the number of dopamine neuron fibers in the frontal cortex compared with control animals," said Dr. Lipton. "Abnormal or overly numerous connections in the frontal cortex may result in aberrant signaling there, possibly resulting in abnormal behavior."

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that carries messages between nerve cells and plays a role in a number of different motivated behaviors such as sex, eating, and drug use.

Important functions such as attention, planning, and impulse control are associated with the brain's frontal cortex.

Gender Differences in Vulnerability?

The study also revealed smaller but similar in dopamine fibers in the brain area involved in locomotion and reward and the primary site of action of rewarding stimuli, the nucleus accumbens.

"MDMA-exposed pups also showed modest decreases in dopamine metabolism in brain structures that play key roles in reward, addiction, learning, and movement. There also was a reduction in serotonin metabolism. Serotonin also is a brain chemical that helps to regulate mood, sleep, and appetite," Lipton reported.

Interestingly, the researchers also found gender differences from Ecstasy exposure. While reductions in dopamine and serotonin metabolism were observed in the nucleus accumbens of males, these same effects were not seen in female pups.

Behavioral Changes Seen

The Chicago study also revealed behavioral changes in the animals.

"When the Ecstasy-exposed pups were placed in a new environment away from their littermates, they spent significantly more time exploring, signifying they did not adjust as easily to the new environment as the control animals," the authors said.

"Our findings show that exposing rats to Ecstasy at a time of prenatal development that correlates with the first trimester in humans may result in lasting changes in brain chemistry and behavior," said Dr. Lipton. "Our findings also suggest that MDMA exposure may result in hyperactivity or deficits in attention or learning. Further research is needed to learn more about the effects of prenatal exposure to this drug."

The study was funded in part by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Research has also linked Ecstasy use in the third trimester of pregnancy to learning impairments and neurobiological changes.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Thompson VB, Heiman J, Chambers JB, et al. Long-term behavioral consequences of prenatal MDMA exposure. Physiol Behav. 2009;96(4-5):593-601. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2008.12.013

  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Rat Study Shows Exposure to Ecstasy Early in Pregnancy Induces Brain, Behavior Changes. Published August 29, 2003.

Additional Reading