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pharmacology: mdma (ecstasy)

Word on the Street:

Ecstasy, X, XTC, Adam, Pills, Love doves. MDMA is a synthetic, psychoactive (mind altering) drug with amphetamine-like and hallucinogenic properties. It has the same effects of energizing both mind and body and decreasing appetite as do amphetamine and other stimulants. However, instead of an energizing euphoria, MDMA users experience a warm empathy to those surrounding them.

What is it?

Chemical ecstasy is known as methylene-dioxymethamphetamine, usually referred to as MDMA. It is one of a huge family of related drugs from the MDA family which fall between hallucinogens (like LSD) and the amphetamine family. It comes in small tablets that may have a picture on them such as a dove, a hammer and sickle, or a diamond. It was originally made in the 1930s as an experimental amphetamine but disappeared for many years, mainly unstudied, until the 1980s when it made a comeback: psychotherapists found that the empathy it produced could be useful in couples' therapy. During the 80s, recreational use of MDMA increased, and in 1986 it was classified as a Schedule I controlled substance by the DEA. In the 90s MDMA was embraced by the underground rave scene, where users take ecstasy and dance all night.

In the brain:

MDMA causes a feeling of empathy, openness and caring, as well as a decrease in defensiveness, fear, aggression and obsession. MDMA also decreases sexual behavior. While it does not cause overt hallucinations, many users report distorted time perception while under the influence of MDMA. It also causes amphetamine-like hyperactivity.

In the body:

Similarly to amphetamines, MDMA causes classic signs of the stimulation of the fight-or-flight syndrome: heart rate and blood pressure are increased, the muscles of the breathing tubes (bronchioles) dilate, pupils dilate and blood flow to muscles increases. Body temperature rises, and users tend to become dehydrated. They also may suffer from jaw clenching or teeth grinding.

How it works:

Euphoria, blood pressure, appetite and attention are all regulated by a related group of neurotransmitters: the biogenic amines or monoamine neurotransmitters. Normally, these sensations are caused when neurons communicate with each other and fire impulses through the brain via the neurotransmittors. Monoamine neurotransmittors release their neurotransmittors into the synaptic cleft and act on their receptors. What MDMA does can be explained by its ability to increase the levels of the monoamine neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin in the synapse. It dumps them into the synapse in quantities much larger than those seen with cocaine, but it releases much more serotonin and much less dopamine than do amphetamines. This explains the decrease in aggressiveness, the increase in body temperature and the relatively low addiction potential.

The downside

At high doses (two to three times greater than a single dose), MDMA users experience jitteriness and teeth clenching, as well as other signs of overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. MDMA has caused a number of deaths when it was used in conjunction with high levels of physical activity (such as dancing). Death is usually typical of stimulation overdose, with greatly increased body temperature, hypertension, and kidney failure.

Kuhn, Cynthia, Scott Swartzwelder and Wilkie Wilson. Buzzed : the straight facts about the most used and abused drugs from alcohol to ecstasy. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.

"hallucinogen" Britannica.com. Vers. 2001
1999-2001. Encyclopædia Britannica.
1 Sep. 2000

"MDMA (Ecstacy)" NIDA Infofax. 2001. http://www.nida.nih.gov/Infofax/ecstasy.html (1 Sep. 2000).

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