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Rat study shows exposure to Ecstasy early in pregnancy induces brain, behavior changes

Researchers at Rush Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago have shown that 21-day-old rat pups exposed in the womb to the drug MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, often called Ecstasy) during a period corresponding to the first trimester in human pregnancy exhibit changes in brain chemistry and behavior.

"Existing data suggest that most women who use MDMA stop taking it when they learn they are pregnant," says NIDA Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow. "But the animal studies that linked this drug to neurobiological changes and learning impairments were conducted in situations analogous to the third trimester in humans. This study sought to investigate a more true-to-life situation by looking at the consequences of Ecstasy exposure early in pregnancy."

The study, funded in part by NIDA, was published August 29 on the journal of Neurotoxicology and Teratology Web site.

Dr. Jack W. Lipton, doctoral student James Koprich, and their colleagues injected 8 pregnant rats twice daily with MDMA from day 14 through day 20 of pregnancy, a period corresponding to the first 3 months of human fetal development. The scientists injected saline twice daily during the same period to another 8 pregnant rats. The researchers examined brain tissue of the rat pups when they were 21 days old. A 21-day-old rat pup is roughly equivalent to a 2- to 6-year-old child.

"Our most striking finding was that 21-day-old MDMA-exposed pups had a 502-percent increase in the number of dopamine neuron fibers in the frontal cortex compared with control animals," notes 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 brain chemical that carries or transmits messages between nerve cells. It is involved in a variety of motivated behaviors, such as eating, sex, and drug-taking. The frontal cortex is important in planning, impulse control, and
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Contact: Blair Gately
bgately@nida.nih.gov
301-443-6245
NIH/National Institute on Drug Abuse
29-Aug-2003


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