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Depressed for life?

Ecstasy 'makes users depressed for life'
By Sophie Goodchild and Kat Johnson
16 March 2003

A generation of young clubbers is risking long-term brain damage by taking the drug ecstasy, according to new research published yesterday. Academics are now warning that taking only one or two pills can lead to lasting depression.

A two-year research study carried out by psychologists from London Metropolitan University found that people who had tried ecstasy on only a few occasions had depression levels four times higher than those who had taken a range of other drugs but not ecstasy.

The findings presented to the British Psychological Society's annual conference in Bournemouth yesterday suggested that taking ecstasy left users susceptible to major problems triggered by stress or emotional turbulence.

The results were based on studying 519 volunteers, including current and past ecstasy users, and others who had either never used drugs or had used a number of drugs other than ecstasy, including alcohol and cannabis.

Participants were given a standard psychological questionnaire designed to discover to what extent they suffered from depression. A score of 25 on the questionnaire indicated clinically depression.

Non-ecstasy users, including those taking other drugs such as alcohol, nicotine, cannabis, amphetamines and cocaine, had average scores of about four. But the scores of even non-frequent ecstasy users, including many who had only tried the drug once or twice, reached levels of 16 or 17. Frequent users scored values of up to 28 which put them in the category of clinically depressed even though they were generally not aware of the fact.

Ecstasy is currently listed as a class A drug along with cocaine and heroin although recreational users deny that it has any lasting side effects.

There have been 202 ecstasy deaths recorded in England and Wales between 1997 and April 2002. The dangers of the drug were first highlighted by the death of schoolgirl Leah Betts in 1995 who collapsed after taking ecstasy on her 18th birthday.

A report by the Home Affairs Select Committee recommended the downgrading of the drug and anti-drug abuse charities say the Government is sending out the wrong message by linking it with heroin and cocaine.

Lynn Taurah, who carried out the research with Dr Chris Chandler, said that ecstasy users did not realise they were depressed and she warned people to stay away from the drug.

"People often think taking ecstasy just once or twice won't matter, but what we're seeing is evidence that if you take ecstasy a couple of times you do damage to your brain that later in life will make you more vulnerable," she said.

Ms Taurah added that findings supported evidence from animal studies suggesting that even small doses of ecstasy destroyed brain neurons that produced the important chemical messenger serotonin, which is closely linked to mood. Seven years after the initial damage there was no sign of the neurons repairing themselves.

The animal data raised the possibility that ecstasy may have a whole range of adverse effects involving memory, impulsiveness, decision-making, sleep, and mood.

The research has been received with some scepticism. Dr Jon Cole of Liverpool University, whose own research concluded that the adverse effects of ecstasy had been exaggerated, said that scientists had yet to produce conclusive evidence that the drug had a long term negative impact on users.

"Depression among ecstasy users is not unique. It is the same with people who abuse alcohol," said Dr Cole. "All the evidence so far points to the fact that all these side effects may be down to other factors."

Additional reporting by Steve Bloomfield
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