MDMA, called "Adam," "ecstasy," or
"X-TC" on the street, is a synthetic, psychoactive (mind-altering) drug with
hallucinogenic and amphetamine-like properties. Its chemical structure (3-4
methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is similar to two other synthetic drugs, MDA and
methamphetamine, which are known to cause brain damage.
Beliefs about ecstasy are reminiscent of similar claims
made about LSD in the 1950s and 1960s, which proved to be untrue. According to its
proponents, MDMA can make people trust each other and can break down barriers between
therapists and patients, lovers, and family members.
Many problems users encounter with MDMA are similar to
those found with the use of amphetamines and cocaine. They are:
|Psychological difficulties, including confusion, depression, sleep problems, drug
craving, severe anxiety, and paranoia - during and sometimes weeks after taking MDMA (even
psychotic episodes have been reported). |
|Physical symptoms such as muscle tension, involuntary teeth-clenching, nausea, blurred
vision, rapid eye movement, faintness, and chills or sweating.
|Increases in heart rate and blood pressure, a special risk for people with circulatory
or heart disease. |
MDA, the parent drug of MDMA, is an amphetamine-like drug that has also been abused and
is similar in chemical structure to MDMA. Research shows that MDA destroys
serotonin-producing neurons, which play a direct role in regulating aggression, mood,
sexual activity, sleep, and sensitivity to pain. It is probably this action on the
serotonin system that gives MDA its purported properties of heightened sexual experience,
tranquility, and conviviality.
MDMA also is related in structure and effects to methamphetamine, which has been shown
to cause degeneration of neurons containing the neurotransmitter dopamine. Damage to these
neurons is the underlying cause of the motor disturbances seen in Parkinson's disease.
In laboratory experiments, a single exposure to methamphetamine at high doses or
prolonged use at low doses destroys up to 50 percent of the brain cells that use dopamine.
Although this damage may not be immediately apparent, scientists believe that with aging
or exposure to other toxic agents, Parkinsonian symptoms may eventually emerge. These
symptoms begin with lack of coordination and tremors and may eventually result in a form
Institutes of Health
Heavy users of ecstasy, a synthetic drug that is structurally similar to
methamphetamine and the hallucinogen mescaline, may be risking brain damage that remains
long after the high has worn off.
In a series of studies conducted with rats and nonhuman primates, Dr. George Ricaurte
and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions first determined that a single
dose of MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), only slightly higher than the size of
doses taken by humans, significantly damaged brain cells called neurons that produce
serotonin. Serotonin is a major neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, in the brain that
is thought to influence mood, appetite, sleep, and other important functions. Then Dr.
Ricaurte reported that 12 to 18 months after the brains of squirrel monkeys had been
damaged by MDMA, serotonin-producing nerve fibers had regrown abnormally in some brain
regions and failed to regrow at all in others.
Unlike methamphetamine, which damages brain neurons that produce both serotonin and
another important chemical messenger called dopamine, "MDMA selectively damages
serotonin neurons in virtually all species examined to date," Dr. Ricaurte says.
"With MDMA, the doses that people take very closely approach the doses known to
produce neurotoxic effects in animals," Dr. Ricaurte says.
"At this point, the major question is whether the neuronal changes we see in
animals from methamphetamine and MDMA exposure occur in human beings who use these
drugs," he says.
To help answer that question, he is conducting separate clinical studies using brain
imaging techniques to evaluate the possibility of long-term brain damage in humans who
have previously used either methamphetamine or MDMA. These studies also are assessing the
potential functional consequences of such neuronal damage on aspects of mood, movement,
memory, impulse control, aggression, and sleep cycles.
Source: Fischer, C.; Hatzidimitriou, G.; Wlos, J.; Katz, J.; and
Ricaurte, G. Reorganization of ascending 5-HT axon projections in animals previously
exposed to recreational drug 3,4-methelenedioxymetham-phetamine (MDMA,
"Ecstasy"). Journal of Neuroscience 15:5476-5485, 1995.