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Music heightens party drug

February 16, 2006 By Helen Pearson This article courtesy of Nature News.

Ecstasy effects may be exacerbated by disco din.

Loud noise appears to fuel the effects of the club-drug ecstasy in the brain. The results add to the debate about the risks of long-term brain damage from the drug.

Ecstasy is the common name for 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). The drug, popular at raves and nightclubs, triggers a flood of the feel-good chemical serotonin in the brain, causing feelings of euphoria, energy and well-being.

Michelangelo Iannone at the Institute of Neurological Science in Catanzaro, Italy, and his colleagues tested whether loud noise intensified ecstasy's effects in rat brains.

After injecting the animals with either a low or high dose of MDMA, they played them a buzz of white noise at the maximum volume allowed in Italian nightclubs. They measured the rats' brain activity using electrodes inserted into the animals' skulls.

This may make the difference between the drug being toxic and not.
Jenny Morton
University of Cambridge, UK
The deafening noise can transform a seemingly innocuous dose of the drug into a potent one, they found. The low dose of MDMA had little effect on the animals' brains - but when paired with the noise, it boosted the activity of certain brain cells. "This may make the difference between the drug being toxic and not," says Jenny Morton at the University of Cambridge, UK, who has studied the effects of music on drugs.

In addition, the researchers showed that a high dose of ecstasy combined with noise altered the animals' brain activity for five days. Animals that were drugged but remained in peace and quiet were back to normal after only a day, they report in BMC Neuroscience1.

Big hit

The results suggest that pounding techno music could heighten ecstasy's effects in the human brain - perhaps explaining the drug's popularity amongst club-goers. "You may get a stronger hit," says Andrew Parrott who studies recreational drugs at the University of Wales, Swansea.

The result adds to earlier studies suggesting that other features of a disco, such as heat and crowding, also heighten the effects of ecstasy in animals. These conditions, like music, might further rouse brain cells that are already over-stimulated.

The report echoes a 2001 study in mice by Morton, which showed that club music exacerbates the brain damage caused by the drug methamphetamine, known as speed. "If [Iannone's team] had used loud, pulsing noise, their effects would probably have been stronger," Morton says.

Lasting damage

Iannone's study fuels a dispute about whether MDMA takes a serious toll on its users' brains. The drug is sometimes argued to be relatively harmless; most of the clubbers who have died after taking it did so because of overheating or drinking too much water.

The bigger debate is whether the drug causes long-term brain damage. Studies in animals suggest that MDMA erodes nerve endings, raising concern that it may do the same to people, perhaps increasing their susceptibility to depression, mood problems or other conditions.

The long-term consequences of ecstasy use are difficult to prove, because its users often take other drugs or alcohol, and the effects of ecstasy can be hard to tease out from these other factors.

Because of this controversy, it is important to know that loud noise could ramp up the effects of MDMA, Morton says. "It would be tragic to find that taking ecstasy in clubs as a teenager significantly increased the risk of mental illness in later life," she says.

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  1. Iannone M., et al. BMC Neuroscience, doi:10.1186/1471-2202-7-13 (2006).


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