Event related potential (ERP) evidence for selective impairment of verbal recollection in abstinent recreational methylenedioxymethamphetamine (“Ecstasy”)/polydrug users

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Ecstasy is a recreational drug whose active ingredient, 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), acts predominantly on the serotonergic system. Although MDMA is known to be neurotoxic in animals, the long-term effects of recreational Ecstasy use in humans remain controversial but one commonly reported consequence is mild cognitive impairment particularly affecting verbal episodic memory. Although event-related potentials (ERPs) have made significant contributions to our understanding of human memory processes, until now they have not been applied to study the long-term effects of Ecstasy. The aim of this study was to examine the effects of past Ecstasy use on recognition memory for both verbal and non-verbal stimuli using ERPs.
We compared the ERPs of 15 Ecstasy/polydrug users with those of 14 cannabis users and 13 non-illicit drug users as controls.
Despite equivalent memory performance, Ecstasy/polydrug users showed an attenuated late positivity over left parietal scalp sites, a component associated with the specific memory process of recollection.
This effect was only found in the word recognition task which is consistent with evidence that left hemisphere cognitive functions are disproportionately affected by Ecstasy, probably because the serotonergic system is laterally asymmetrical. Experimentally, decreasing central serotonergic activity through acute tryptophan depletion also selectively impairs recollection, and this too suggests the importance of the serotonergic system. Overall, our results suggest that Ecstasy users, who also use a wide range of other drugs, show a durable abnormality in a specific ERP component thought to be associated with recollection.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)545-556
Number of pages12
Issue number4
Early online date10 Mar 2011
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2011


  • MDMA, ecstasy, memory, event-related potentials, serotonin

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