Love it or leave it, the drug Ecstasy has been known to have side effects, including problems with sleep, mood, anxiety, impulsive behavior, inattention and memory. Now, it appears that the drug may cause Parkinson’s disease as well. A study recently conducted at Johns Hopkins University and published in the Sept. 27 issue of Science claims that one night of excessive Ecstasy use may cause permanent brain damage and that chronic use may lead to the development of Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder resulting in muscle stiffness, depression, loss of balance, slurred speech, swallowing difficulty, tremors and shaking. The disease is the result of a decline in the amount of dopamine produced by the brain. The first symptoms occur when 70 to 80 percent of the brain’s dopamine has been depleted and can include chronic exhaustion as well as slowness of movement and speech.

The study was led by Dr. George Ricaurte of the Johns Hopkins Neurology Dept. The researchers injected five squirrel monkeys with a standard dose of Ecstasy three times at three-hour intervals. The animals were given a total of 2.7 milligrams of the drug per pound of bodyweight in an attempt to mimic the dosage of Ecstasy commonly consumed at parties.

One of the monkeys dropped dead. All of them developed brain damage. When the brains of the monkeys were examined between two and six weeks later, 60 to 80 percent of the dopamine neuron endings had been wrecked in an area of the brain known as the striatum. Neuron endings have been known to regenerate, so it is unclear whether or not the damage is permanent.

Findings were nearly identical, including one fatality, when the researchers repeated the experiment with five baboons.

The active agent in Ecstasy, 3,4-methylene-dioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), has been known to damage the dopamine system in mice, but until recently this was thought to be an isolated phenomenon. The Johns Hopkins study is the first evidence of dopamine effects in primates. The animals also showed damage to serotonin cells, a common result in Ecstasy studies. Serotonin cell loss and memory problems are common ailments amongst chronic users of the drug.

According to Ricaurte, a single Ecstasy rave is not enough to cause Parkinson’s, but chronic users of the drug should be concerned. Dopamine levels in the brain decrease naturally over the course of a person’s lifetime; however, a drop in levels at a young age may result in dangerously low dopamine levels later in life.

The Johns Hopkins study drew criticism from some in the medical establishment. Injecting the drug into the monkeys’ bloodstream most likely resulted in much greater concentrations of MDMA in the brain than one would find if the drug had been taken orally.

In addition, it is unclear how well squirrel monkeys and baboons serve as models for humans. One in five Ecstasy users do not die instantly after using the drug for the first time, indicating that these animals may metabolize the drug differently than humans. In rare cases Ecstasy users have died of inexplicably high fevers after taking the drug, but it is impossible to draw a parallel because the researchers did not attempt to link the cause of death to any one symptom in the monkeys.

Some psychologists are also unhappy with the study because they believe it impedes legal progress toward legalizing the drug for medical purposes. These doctors believe that the drug-induced feelings of warmth and happiness reportedly linked to Ecstasy could prove useful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

The drug was made illegal in 1985. In 2000, 4,511 people were hospitalized for symptoms related to Ecstasy use, a nearly 1,800-percent increase since 1994.