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Biology 202
2001 Second Web Report
On Serendip


Janine R. Fuertes

Ever since its first synthesis 80 years ago, the seemingly harmless nature of the drug ecstasy has been the subject of much debate. While many scientists are convinced that there is a darker side to the euphoria-inducing pill than meets the eye, the millions of users insist that no such danger exists. In fact, while I conducted my research on the subject, I discovered that to some extent, the users' concept is true - ecstasy does seem to be far less harmful than any of the other popularized drugs of the century. But why, then, in 1985 was this limitlessly pleasurable drug outlawed (1), with such a weak case against it? Is the scientific world's overly cautious attitude preventing us from experiencing a limitless pleasure unlike anything we have ever known? These were the questions I sought to have answered.

3,4 - Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA as it has come to be called, is a psychoactive drug with a chemical structure similar to the stimulant methamphetamine and the hallucinogen mescaline, and demonstrates both psychedelic and stimulant effects (3). It was first synthesized by a German company in 1912 to be used to help develop more advanced therapeutic drugs (1). In the 1970s, MDMA was used to facilitate psychotherapy by a group of therapists in the United States (5). Not until the 1980s and early 1990s did the drug gain worldwide popularity as the illicit "ecstasy" (5), the drug that would eventually stir a wave of excitement among young people everywhere.

Ecstasy use, which saw its roots in the hippie generation of the 1970s, has since grown exponentially. Ecstasy tablets confiscated by the Drug Enforcement Administration increased from 13,342 in 1996 to 950,000 in 2000 (4). According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research in 1998, 4.3 percent of 8th graders, 7.3 percent of 10th graders, and 11 percent of 12th graders reported they had used MDMA at some point (4). However, by far the age group with the heaviest use (1.4 million Americans) of the drug was reported for those between 18 and 25 years of age (4). So much ecstasy is entering our country at present that the Customs Service has developed an ecstasy command center and is training dogs to sniff out the drug (2).

What is it that lures so many people to "experiment" with ecstasy and tantalizes them to want more? There are simple reasons behind its popularity among sellers and users. Sometimes referred to as "the hug drug" (2), ecstasy has been known to produce profoundly pleasurable feelings, including empathy for others, elimination of anxiety, and utter relaxation (5). Taken orally, usually in capsule or tablet form, its effects last from four to six hours . As one user put it, it's "a six-hour orgasm (1)." About a half an hour after one takes a hit of ecstasy, he begins to feel peaceful and energetic (1). Often users talk endlessly about either something silly or about a burden that they are experiencing. The drug has none of the immediate downsides that marijuana, cocaine, and LSD do - the user's mind is clear. Ecstasy allows the mind to wander, but not hallucinate (1). The user remains in control of his actions.

However when one continues to take ecstasy pills in order to relive the best moments of his life, suddenly the "real" world without the drug starts to look depressing and unappealing. Just like all of the other illegal drugs out there, ecstasy can distort the reality to which users must undoubtedly return. This downing effect can lead to the abuse of other, more harmful drugs in hopes of reclaiming the euphoria once known through ecstasy.

That is not, however, to say that ecstasy has no profound health risks of its own. On the contrary, from what we know about the drug's capabilities so far, its long-term effects are far from harmless. In a broad sense, there are two significant dangers in taking the drug. First, a pill one thinks is ecstasy may, in fact, contain other more toxic drugs that may demonstrate frighteningly adverse effects. Often MDMA is cut and mixed with other drugs, which result in the pills many users believe to be the pure substance (1). Secondly, the compound MDMA has been proven harmful all by itself. After MDMA enters the bloodstream, it precisely aims at the neurons that produce serotonin (5), a neurotransmitter in the brain known to control mood, appetite, sleep, and body temperature. MDMA causes these cells to empty their contents, thereby flooding the brain with excess amounts of serotonin (1). Since serotonin levels are usually very carefully maintained by the body, this flushing of the chemical, especially when party-goers take several pills over the course of one night, can severely disrupt the body's ability to control its temperature. In extreme situations, this causes one's blood to coagulate, which may result in subsequent death (1).

Long-term dangers of ecstasy seem to exist as well. By forcing the release of serotonin, MDMA can cause permanent brain damage by resculpting the neurons involved. Studies have shown that heavy MDMA users had significant memory impairments compared to nonusers (6). Through a brain imaging study, scientists at Johns Hopkins University found that, in fact, MDMA's harmful effects were related to dose - the more MDMA a person used, the greater difficulty he had recalling what he saw and heard during testing (6). Findings from another National Institute of Mental Health study suggest that the compound may also lead to other impairments, such as the ability to verbally reason or sustain attention (6). Because of such findings, researchers are continuing their efforts to observe MDMA's effects on other functions which serotonin has been known to control.

Despite these negative results, much more evidence is needed before any conclusions of its nature can be drawn. Many of the studies conducted were only the first of a series of tests, or involved a very small number of different types of MDMA users. Nevertheless, these findings are far from insignificant, and though the majority of its users presently appear to be in good health, the future of their health remains to be seen. Perhaps in time, we will see the drug released to the general public for recreational use once again. But until then, we must look to find ecstasy elsewhere, hidden deep amidst the clutter and banality of our ordinary lives.

WWW Sources

1) Time Magazine home page , "The Lure of Ecstasy"

2) Time magazine home page , "It's All the Rave"

3) Facts About MDMA (Ecstasy)

4)MDMA (Ecstasy)

5) Drug Enforcement Administration , on the U.S. Department of Justice website

6)"Ecstasy" Damages the Brain and Impairs Memory in Humans

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