Wild One Weekend, Brain-Dead the Next

Australia's sky-rocketing ecstasy use fuels fear for future generations' health.

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 12:11 AM

March 20, 2008 -- You can call them "round ones," "biccies," "pills" or "pingers," but to Australians you're saying just one thing: ecstasy.

It's the drug that has swept this land of party-prone post-colonials. Australia is now the world's leading consumer of the illicit substance and the place where the nasty long-term effects of this drug may soon be reproduced en masse.

Ecstasy fills a special position in the stomachs and minds of Australian party-goers. Unlike its chief competitors, ecstasy is cheap and accessible, possibly explaining why more than 650,000 Aussies, or about 3.2 percent of the population, have "popped a pill" within the last 12 months, Jennifer Johnston of the Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre in Melbourne told The Australian newspaper.

But for those seeking the soothing highs of the drug chemically known as MDMA, the writing is on the wall even though most don't care to look at it.

Recent reports from the medical world paint potentially dire outcomes for frequent users.

A study by a team at the Australian Catholic University found that ecstasy causes memory loss, not just in the recall of events, but also in the completion of every-day tasks. Scientists worry that this will affect the day-to-day lives of users, especially seeing as memory damage seems to appear in even moderate users.

Memory loss constitutes one of the many types of cognitive impairment that scientists are able to link with the drug. Researchers also believe a connection exists between regular use and long-term brain changes such as chronic depression.

Given that the current National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) found 22 percent of Australians aged 20 to 29 have consumed, future Australia might well be inhabited by many muddled minds.

"I think a lot of them think it's a low-risk activity," says Professor Steve Allsop, director and project leader at Australia's National Drug Research Institute.

Because the drug has become so popular over such a short period of time, researchers are only just coming to terms with the likely long-term consequences of heavy usage.

"People believe that no evidence is evidence of safety. But as more research is emerging we're becoming aware of a range of adverse outcomes," Allsop says.