Widespread reduction of dopamine cell bodies and terminals in adult rats exposed to a low dose regimen of MDMA during adolescence

Cristina Cadoni*, Augusta Pisanu, Nicola Simola, Lucia Frau, Pier Francesca Porceddu, Silvia Corongiu, Christian Dessì, Annesha Sil, Antonio Plumitallo, Jadwiga Wardas, Gaetano Di Chiara

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)


Although MDMA (3,4-methylendioxymethamphetamine, ecstasy) neurotoxicity in serotonin neurons is largely recognized in a wide variety of species including man, neurotoxicity in dopamine (DA) neurons is thought to be species-specific. MDMA is mainly consumed by adolescents, often in conjunction with caffeine (Energy Drinks) and this association has been reported to exacerbate MDMA toxic effects. In order to model these aspects of MDMA use, vis-à-vis their impact on DA neurons, we investigated the effects of adolescent exposure to low doses of MDMA (5 mg/kg for 10 days), alone or in combination with caffeine (10 mg/kg) on neuronal and functional DA indices and on recognition memory in adult rats. MDMA reduced density of tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) positive neurons in the ventral tegmental area and in the substantia nigra pars compacta, and immunoreactivity of TH and DA transporter in the nucleus accumbens (NAc) shell and core, and caudate-putamen. This same treatment caused a reduction of basal dialysate DA in the NAc core. MDMA-pretreated rats also showed behavioral sensitization to a MDMA challenge at adulthood and potentiation of MDMA-induced increase of dialysate DA in the NAc core, but not in the NAc shell. In addition, MDMA-treated rats displayed a deficit in recognition memory. Caffeine co-administration did not affect the above outcomes. Our results show that adolescent exposure of rats to low doses of MDMA induces long-lasting and widespread reduction of DA neurons indicative of a neurotoxic effect on DA neurons and suggestive of a degeneration of the same neurons.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)385-394
Number of pages10
Early online date8 Jun 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2017
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

This study was supported by Fondazione Banco di Sardegna grant (Bando 2014; Prot. U956.2014/AI.838.MGB) to C.C. and by Regione Autonoma della Sardegna grants (L.R. n. 7/2007, bando 2008, Det. N.7249/1118 22/10/2010; L.R. n.7/2007, bando 2010, Det. N.11200/1602, 22/10/2011) to GDC and to C.C..


  • Caffeine
  • MDMA
  • Neurotoxicity
  • Nucleus accumbens
  • Recognition memory
  • Sensitization
  • tyrosine hydroxylase


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