Study Shows Ecstasy Use Effects Long-Term Memory

Ecstasy Pills

Ecstasy, or 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA), is a synthetic drug that affects perception and mood, producing feelings of euphoria, increased energy, and emotional warmth. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that 7.3% of people over the age of 12 will try ecstasy at some point during their lifetime. Research suggests that people who take the drug may develop memory problems, even after relatively short-term or occasional use.

People who take the recreational drug ecstasy risk impairing their memory, according to an international study that surveyed 763 people, including 81 people who engaged in chronic use.

The study found that those who regularly took ecstasy suffered from long-term memory difficulties and were 23% more likely to report problems with remembering things compared with non-users.

The British research team, led by the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, also questioned volunteers about their use of other drugs. It found those who regularly used marijuana reported up to 20% more memory problems than non-users. But for these users, short-term memory was mainly affected.​

Cognitive Time Bomb

Because evidence has shown ecstasy users are likely to use other drugs, including marijuana, the researchers say they are vulnerable to a myriad of memory afflictions which may represent a 'time bomb' of cognitive problems for later life.

Ecstasy has immediate and short-term effects on the brain, but the long-term effects on memory and other cognitive abilities are worrisome as well.

Until recently, little had been known about the impact of ecstasy and other drug use on everyday and long-term memory, the authors reported.

The research team based their findings on responses from 763 participants but they also looked closely at a sub-group of 81 people who had taken the drug at least ten times.

Errors and Memory Loss

As well as assessing the volunteers' responses to the memory tests, the team recorded the number of mistakes made when filling in the online questionnaire.

They found the group of 'typical users' reported their long-term memory to be 14% worse than the 480 people who had never taken ecstasy and 23% worse than the 242 non-drug users.

This group also made 21% more errors on the questionnaire form than non-ecstasy users and 29% more mistakes than people who did not take drugs at all.

Subtle Effects

Lead researcher Dr. Jacqui Rodgers, of Newcastle University, said: "We all know of cases where people have suffered acutely from the use of ecstasy, but relatively little is known about the more subtle effects on the increasing number of regular users worldwide.

"Users may think that ecstasy is fun and that it feels fairly harmless at the time. However, our results show slight but measurable impairments to memory as a result of use, which is worrying.

'Double Whammy' Memory Loss

"It's equally concerning that we don't really know what the long-term effects of ecstasy use will be, as it is still a poorly understood drug. The results indicate that users are potentially creating a time bomb of potential cognitive difficulties in later life.

"The findings also suggest that ecstasy users who use marijuana are suffering from a 'double whammy' where both their long-term and short-term memory is being impaired."

Dr. Rodgers, of the School of Neurology, Neurobiology & Psychiatry, said the results could change drug therapy techniques. "The findings may help drug services in the UK and elsewhere to explain the potential consequences of use so that people can make an informed decision as to whether to take ecstasy or not."

The study also found no significant differences between the results of male and female participants.

Further Evidence

A 2012 study published in the journal Addiction found that even relatively short-term recreational use of MDMA increased the risk of specific memory impairments. The researchers looked at memory performance prior to ecstasy use and then again after a year of use. They found increased damage to the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is associated with memory.

Even people who had taken as few as 10 ecstasy pills over the course of a year showed memory impairments.

A Word From Verywell

As the research indicates, even taking ecstasy occasionally has the potential to have lasting cognitive effects. Further research is needed to learn more about the potential long-term impact of taking ecstasy. Ultimately only time may tell the long-term toll that the drug takes on memory.

3 Sources
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  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. MDMA (ecstasy/molly).

  2. Rodgers J, Buchanan T, Scholey AB, Heffernan TM, Ling J, Parrott AC. Patterns of drug use and the influence of gender on self-reports of memory ability in ecstasy users: a web-based study. J Psychopharmacol (Oxford). 2003;17(4):389-96. doi:10.1177/0269881103174016

  3. Wagner D, Becker B, Koester P, Gouzoulis-mayfrank E, Daumann J. A prospective study of learning, memory, and executive function in new MDMA users. Addiction. 2013;108(1):136-45. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2012.03977.x

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.