4: Ecstasy causes degeneration of serotonin nerve terminals
This image illustrates the degeneration of serotonin nerve terminals after long-term or repeated use of ecstasy (you can refer back to image 9 to compare this degenerating terminal to a healthy terminal). Remind students that we have several pieces of evidence that support this effect of ecstasy. Experiments in animals given ecstasy indicate that this kind of degeneration occurs. Moreover, some studies of human ecstasy users report less serotonin and serotonin metabolites in the cerebrospinal fluid (which surrounds and bathes the brain and spinal cord) compared with nonusers. In contrast, the animal studies indicate that the serotonin cell bodies are still intact but the genetic instructions from the nucleus for any regrowth of the terminals may be abnormal.
Although scientists do not yet know for certain how ecstasy damages the serotonin terminals in these animal studies, some progress has been made in understanding this process. One mechanism is damage that involves the production of oxygen radicals (unstable forms of oxygen), which are very destructive to proteins, lipids, and DNA. The rich supply of mitochondria (which are a major source of oxygen radical formation) found in the terminals may cause the terminals to be especially sensitive to drugs like ecstasy.
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