Lead researcher Luke Downey from Swinburne University of Technology studied the health effects of light and heavy users of MDMA, also known as ecstasy, by looking at cortisol levels found in hair. Cognitive performance in this group was also measured.
“Cortisol is a stress hormone that we all produce in our bodies and interestingly it is deposited in our hair. Looking at cortisol in hair is a way for us to see how stressed we’ve been in the past,” Dr Downey said.
Previous studies using saliva samples have shown increased cortisol levels after taking ecstasy, but until now there has been no study that retrospectively measured these effects.
“Hair grows one centimetre per month. We took three centimetres of hair from the scalp of non-ecstasy users (control group), light ecstasy users and heavy ecstasy users to assess the level of stress on their bodies over a three month period,” Dr Downey said.
Sixty-one people took part in the study – 33 females and 28 males. Their average age was 24.
Working alongside MDMA expert, Professor Andy Parrott from Swansea University in the UK, Dr Downey found increased levels of cortisol in heavy and light users of ecstasy, suggesting they had experienced greater levels of stress over the preceding three months.
Stress levels of light users of ecstasy were 50 per cent higher than the control group. In heavy users, the amount of cortisol was about four times higher than light ecstasy users.
Dr Downey’s team also assessed the memory performance in all three groups and found poorer performance in the MDMA users.
“In measuring both stress levels and memory performance, what we wanted to know was – ‘does that repeated stress on your body relate to memory problems?’ Interestingly, no significant relationship between the memory deficits and levels of stress (indexed by the amount of cortisol) emerged,” Dr Downey said.
“This increased experience of stress appears not to be the mechanism that produces the memory deficit.”
Dr Downey is now following up this study by examining the effects of MDMA on reactivity to stressful situations using both hair and saliva samples to quantify the experience of stress of MDMA users.
The study was published in the journal, Human Psychopharmacology http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hup.2474/abstract