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Dutch study questions ecstasy link to depression

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LONDON, Feb 24 (Reuters) - Ecstasy, the illegal recreational drug blamed by doctors for depression and anxiety, may often only enhance these symptoms rather than cause them, according to a study published today.

Dutch researchers found that children who suffered from depression were more likely to go on to use the drug when they grew up to make them feel better.

The appearance later in life of emotional problems in these people might not therefore be primarily due to their use of ecstasy, but could reflect pre-existing conditions.

''Using ecstasy may increase a risk that is already there,'' said author Anja Huizink, assistant professor at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam.

''Other studies claim that ecstasy leads to depression,'' Huizink told Reuters. ''Sometimes that is the case. But perhaps it is more the case that individuals who already have an increased risk for depression are more likely to use ecstasy.'' Ecstasy -- or methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) -- helps the body relax, reduces inhibitions and increases energy and brings feelings of euphoria.

Introduced in the 1970s to treat depression, ecstasy is now used by millions of young people around the world, especially clubbers who say it can help them dance all night. United Nations data suggest the use of ecstasy surged by 70 per cent between 1995 and 2000.

But ecstasy has increasingly been linked with health problems such as depression, especially where individuals have made heavy use of the drug over a long time.

The Dutch study of 1,580 individuals over 14 years published online by the British Medical Journal, left open the possibility that ecstasy might cause depression in some cases.

''Perhaps for individuals who did not display symptoms of depression and anxiety in childhood, using a lot of ecstasy may also cause depression. We are not saying that is not the case, but we need more studies,'' said Huizink.

She and her colleagues first looked at their sample in 1983, before ecstasy appeared as a recreational drug in the Netherlands.

Use of the drug was then assessed 14 years later.

Individuals with signs of anxiety and depression in 1983 showed an increased risk of starting to use ecstasy.

The researchers said other factors not tested in their study could account for the increased tendency to use ecstasy in some individuals. These included the social environment, novelty seeking and the substance use of parents.

''Focusing on these vulnerable individuals in future studies will increase our insight into the potential harmful effects of MDMA,'' they concluded.

REUTERS SB SSC1028

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