Imaging studies of ecstasy users have failed to find reductions in dopamine transporter binding (Reneman et al. 2002; Semple et al. 1999) and a post-mortem investigation also failed to find any evidence of reduced dopamine in a heavy ecstasy user (Kish et al. 2000). In September 2002, George Ricaurte and Una McCann published an article in Science magazine claiming that MDMA not only reduces dopamine output, but also causes Parkinson’s disease. This article was retracted a year later once it was discovered that the primates used in the study had been administered methamphetamine instead of MDMA. Further investigation failed to find any dopamine toxicity in monkeys given genuine MDMA (Mechan et al. 2005). MAPS Founder and Executive Director Rick Doblin, Ph.D., wrote an article discussing the implications of the Ricaurte controversy.
On the other hand, there have been several recent studies (Sotnikova et al. 2005, Irvani et al. 2003, Banjaw et al. 2003, Schmidt et al. 2002) that reported a reversal of symptoms of Parkinson’s in lab animals after being administered MDMA, MDMA-like compounds (such as MDE and MDA), and other “non-empathogenic” amphetamines. Much of this research was instigated by the account of a British man with Parkinson’s who appeared in the media claiming that he gained symptomatic relief after Ecstasy use. However, none of the findings suggest that MDMA itself is going to be a suitable medication for Parkinson’s. Even if the lower doses of MDMA or related compounds do treat disease symptoms, they are not likely to be a viable, practical solution, since daily dosing with MDMA greatly increases the risks of neurotoxicity. Moreover, the people most likely to have Parkinson’s also likely have other conditions (contraindications like high blood pressure, heart problems, or problems with blood vessels in the brain that might pose stroke risk) that increase the risk of taking MDMA or other amphetamines. One study (Sotnikova et al. 2005) administered doses of MDMA that were up to 60 times higher than what could be safely administered to a human subject, meaning that it would be neurotoxic and probably lethal.
Finally, please note: MDMA is not the same as Ecstasy. Substances sold on the street under the name Ecstasy do often contain MDMA, but frequently also contain ketamine, caffeine, BZP, and other narcotics and stimulants. In laboratory studies, pure MDMA–but not Ecstasy–has been proven sufficiently safe for human consumption when taken a limited number of times in moderate doses.
Can MDMA cause or reverse Parkinson’s disease?