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Hair Samples Reveal the Effects of Ecstasy Use

Swinburne University researchers have used hair samples to measure levels of stress caused by the party drug ecstasy. Lead researcher Dr Luke Downey looked at cortisol levels found in the hair of light and heavy users of ecstasy and also measured their cognitive performance.

“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,” 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 1 cm per month,” Downey said. “We took 3 cm of hair from the scalp of 51 non-ecstasy users, 27 light ecstasy users and 23 heavy ecstasy users to assess the level of stress on their bodies over a 3-month period.”

The study found increased levels of cortisol in heavy and light users of ecstasy, suggesting they had experienced greater levels of stress over the preceding 3 months. Stress levels of light users of ecstasy were 50% higher than the control group, while the amount of cortisol in heavy ecstasy users was about four times higher than light ecstasy users.

Downey’s team also assessed the memory performance in all three groups and found poorer performance in the ecstasy 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,” Downey said. “This increased experience of stress appears not to be the mechanism that produces the memory deficit.”

Downey is now following up this study by using both hair and saliva samples to quantify the experience of stress in ecstasy users.

The study was published in Human Psychopharmacology.