Biology 202
1998 First Web Reports
On Serendip


Maureen Kyin

The drug known as Ecstasy, X, or Adam has become a relatively common drug among adolescents today. Ecstasy is known as 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA for short. It is a synthetic drug that can act as both a stimulant and hallucinogenic drug that enhances sensory processing, increases sexual sensations, and creates euphoric mood elevations in the user. MDMA is known to cause major changes the level of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine, which control our mood and behaviors.

Serotonin (5-Hydroxytrptanamine, 5HT) and dopamine are chemical mediators that are released in synaptic gaps of neurons. These neurotransmitters excite the post-synaptic membranes of neurons allow for the millions of neurons in the central nervous system to communicate with one another. Serotonin is a central neurotransmitter that is released from the mid-brain region, where the cerebral hemispheres and thalamus-hypothalamus are bridged to the spinal cord. Serotonin receptors are present mostly in the smooth muscle and central nervous system. The role of serotonin in the body is to regulate mood, sleep, and stimulate or inhibit the release of particular hormones in the body. Amphetamines such as MDMA cause the release of serotonin in the body, creating a heightened sensory experience for the drug user.

Ecstasy is synthetically derived from methamphetamine and amphetamine to produce a class of drugs known as designer drugs. Designer drugs are slightly modified in molecular structure and chemical compositions to make a stronger, more potent kind of drug. This synthetic drug stimulates the central nervous system and produces hallucinogenic effects. Closely related to the amphetamine family, it produces a variety of negative effects, ranging from psychiatric disturbances, including panic, anxiety and paranoid thinking to increased heart rate, increased blood pressure ( Most users of this drug have reported feeling an enhanced, and sometimes distorted, sensory perception.

MDMA, known by the street name 'Ecstasy' or 'Adam' was first synthesized in the early 1900's as an appetite suppressant, but it was not until 1972 was it first synthesized illegally and widely used and abused in the early 1980s. Not until later did scientists discover that this now called 'love drug' caused serious damage to the brain and its release of serotonin. In laboratory animals, it has been shown that MDMA destroys serotonin-producing neurons. Researchers have studied the effects of the loss of 5-HT axons in monkeys compared to that in rats is much greater. This therefore suggests that MDMA is much more toxic in primates than in the rat (Toxicity and Risk of Death).

Most users of this drug have reported feeling an enhanced, and sometimes distorted, sensory perception. This is because MDMA is believed to act on at least three neurotransmitter pathways, one of them being serotoninergic pathway, which accounts for the pronounced effect in mood, behavior, sleeping and eating habits, and sexual function (MDMA Neurotoxicity: an Update). Animal studies suggest that users who take this can often be at risk for persistently low serotonin, which is linked to depression and anxiety. Therefore, heavy users of Ecstasy may have an increased risk of developing psychological problems of this nature.

The damage to serotonergic axons caused by Ecstasy is very similar to those seen in Alzheimer's Disease. In both cases, the loss of certain presynaptic serotonergic receptors and abnormal levels of the chemical acetylcholine is what is responsible for the hallucination or dementia that the person experiences. Although it is not exactly clear if the use of amphetamines and drugs like Ecstasy cause adverse effects, it is clear that MDMA does have the potential to cause neurotoxicity.

Drugs such as Ecstasy and other such amphetamine that deplete the chemical serotonin in the brain cause alterations in mood and behavior, resulting in a more euphoric state for the user. As in any drug, the mood elevations and distorted sense of reality is a result of an imbalance in the different chemical processes in the brain that is being effected by the drug.

WWW Sources

Drug-Free Resource Net: Ecstasy

Toxicity and Risk of Death

MDMA Neurotoxicity: an Update

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