In vivo evidence for free radical involvement in the degeneration of rat brain 5-HT following administration of MDMA ('ecstasy') and p-chloroamphetamine but not the degeneration following fenfluramine.Br J Pharmacol 1997; 121(5):889-900BJ
1. Administration of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA or 'ecstasy') to several species results in a long lasting neurotoxic degeneration of 5-hydroxytryptaminergic neurones in several regions of the brain. We have now investigated whether this degeneration is likely to be the result of free radical-induced damage. 2. Free radical formation can be assessed by measuring the formation of 2,3- and 2,5-dihydroxybenzoic acid (2,3-DHBA and 2,5-DHBA) from salicylic acid. An existing method involving implantation of a probe into the hippocampus and in vivo microdialysis was modified and validated. 3. Administration of MDMA (15 mg kg-1, i.p.) to Dark Agouti (DA) rats increased the formation of 2,3-DHBA (but not 2,5-DHBA) for at least 6 h. Seven days after this dose of MDMA, the concentration of 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) and 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid (5-HIAA) was reduced by over 50% in hippocampus, cortex and striatum, reflecting neurotoxic damage. There was no change in the concentration of dopamine or 3,4-dihydroxyphenylacetic acid (DOPAC) in the striatum. 4. p-Chloroamphetamine (PCA), another compound which produces a neurotoxic loss of cerebral 5-HT content, when given at a dose of 5 mg kg-1 also significantly increased the formation of 2.3-DHBA (but not 2,5-DHBA) in the dialysate for over 4.5 h. post-injection starting 2 h after treatment. 5. In contrast, fenfluramine administration (15 mg kg-1, i.p.) failed to increase the 2,3-DHBA or 2,5-DHBA concentration in the dialysate. A single fenfluramine injection nevertheless also markedly decreased the concentration of 5-HT and 5-HIAA in the hippocampus, cortex and striatum seven days later. 6. When rats pretreated with fenfluramine (15 mg kg-1, i.p.) seven days earlier were given MDMA (15 mg kg-1, i.p.) no increase in 2,3-DHBA was seen in the dialysate from the hippocampal probe. This indicates that the increase in free radical formation following MDMA is occurring in 5-HT neurones which have been damaged by the prior fenfluramine injection. 7. Administration of the free radical scavenging agent alpha-phenyl-N-tert-butyl nitrone (PBN; 120 mg kg-1, i.p.) 10 min before and 120 min after an MDMA (15 mg kg-1, i.p.) injection prevented the acute rise in the 2,3-DHBA concentration in the dialysate and attenuated by 30% the long term damage to hippocampal 5-HT neurones (as indicated by a smaller MDMA-induced decrease in both the concentration of 5-HT and 5-HIAA and also the binding of [3H]-paroxetine). 8. These data indicate that a major mechanism by which MDMA and PCA induce damage to 5-hydroxytryptaminergic neurones in rat brain is by increasing the formation of free radicals. These probably result from the degradation of catechol and quinone metabolites of these substituted amphetamines. In contrast, fenfluramine induces damage by another mechanism not involving free radicals; a proposal supported by some of our earlier indirect studies. 9. We suggest that these different modes of action render untenable the recent suggestion that MDMA will not be neurotoxic in humans because fenfluramine appears safe at clinical doses.