Ecstasy, 3,4-methylenedioxymetamphetamine (MDMA), is a recreational drug used among adolescents, including young pregnant women. MDMA passes the placental barrier and may therefore influence fetal development. The aim was to investigate the direct effect of MDMA on cortical cells using dissociated CNS cortex of rat embryos, E17. The primary culture was exposed to a single dose of MDMA and collected 5 days later. MDMA caused a dramatic, dose-dependent (100 and 400 muM) decrease in nestin-positive stem cell density, as well as a significant reduction (400 muM) in NeuN-positive cells. By qPCR, MDMA (200 muM) caused a significant decrease in mRNA expression of the 5HT3 receptor, dopamine D(1) receptor, and glutamate transporter EAAT2-1, as well as an increase in mRNA levels of the NMDA NR1 receptor subunit and the 5HT(1A) receptor. In conclusion, MDMA caused a marked reduction in stem cells and neurons in embryonic cortical primary cell cultures, which was accompanied by changes in mRNA expression of specific receptors and transporters for glutamatergic and monoaminergic neurotransmitters.