What is MDMA?
MDMA, also known as ecstasy or molly, is a potent drug that alters one’s mental states to produce mood enhancement, increased sensory perception, and a feeling of extreme happiness or euphoria. It is classified as an entactogen due to its effects on emotional openness, empathy, and enhanced sensation of touch. MDMA also has stimulant properties similar to amphetamines. But what is molly and what is the science behind it?
How Does MDMA Work in the Brain?
MDMA affects the brain by increasing the activity of at least three neurotransmitters: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Like other amphetamines, MDMA enhances the release of these neurotransmitters and/or blocks their reuptake, resulting in increased neurotransmitter levels within the synaptic cleft.
Specifically, MDMA causes a greater release of serotonin and norepinephrine than dopamine. Serotonin is involved in regulating sleep, pain, appetite, and other behaviors, and low serotonin is associated with poor memory and depressed mood.
The exact mechanisms behind MDMA’s effects are still not fully understood. More research is needed to reveal strong evidence about how MDMA interacts with different neurotransmitter systems to produce its unique effects.
Long-Term Effects on the Brain
Studies on MDMA-exposed primates have shown reduced numbers of serotonergic neurons 7 years later. This indicates that some of MDMA’s effects on the brain can be long-lasting.
However, experts believe that MDMA neurotoxicity may be dosage-dependent, with moderate use potentially causing fewer long-term effects. Still, more research is needed to characterize the long-term impact of recreational and therapeutic MDMA use.
Current Research on MDMA
After being banned as a street drug, research into the therapeutic potential of MDMA was halted for many years. However, with the renewed interest in psychedelic therapies, MDMA research has made a comeback.
Current studies are examining the use of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for treating PTSD and other mental health conditions. Early results have been promising, with MDMA enhancing the therapeutic process when combined with counseling.
More research is still needed to fully elucidate the mechanisms, benefits, and potential risks of using MDMA in a medical context. However, the future looks bright for learning how we can harness the unique effects of MDMA to help treat psychiatric disorders.
The Discovery of MDMA
MDMA was first synthesized in 1912 by the German pharmaceutical company Merck. However, its psychoactive effects were not discovered until the 1970s when MDMA began being used recreationally.
In the late 1970s, MDMA was commonly known as “empathy” when used recreationally. By the early 1980s, it became more widely known as “ecstasy” and gained popularity as a party drug. In 1985, The US Drug Enforcement Administration banned MDMA, placing it on the Schedule I list of controlled substances.
How is MDMA Synthesized and Used?
MDMA is derived from an essential oil called safrole which is typically extracted from the bark of the sassafras tree. Safrole is then chemically converted into MDMA through a series of synthetic reactions.
MDMA comes in tablet/capsule form or as a crystalline powder. When used recreationally, a typical dose ranges from around 80-150 mg. Users often start feeling the effects 30-45 minutes after ingesting MDMA. The peak effects occur 75-120 minutes after ingestion and last 3-6 hours.
MDMA is sometimes adulterated with other drugs like amphetamines, synthetic cathinones, or synthetic cannabinoids when sold illegally. This can increase the risks when used recreationally.
What Are the Effects of MDMA on the Body?
In addition to its neurological effects, MDMA also has several physical effects:
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure – puts extra strain on the heart
- Muscle tension, tremors, involuntary teeth clenching
- Nausea, blurred vision, sweating, chills
- Appetite suppression and weight loss
- Dilated pupils and eye twitching
- Higher body temperature – can lead to hyperthermia at high doses
These effects generally coincide with the timeline of MDMA going into effect and wearing off. Drinking enough water is important to avoid dehydration and overheating when taking MDMA.
The Risks and Dangers of Using MDMA
While many view it as benign, MDMA does carry some risks:
- Hyperthermia – dangerous increase in body temperature leading to organ failure
- Hyponatremia – electrolyte disturbance from drinking too much water
- Neurotoxicity – potential long-term damage to serotonin neurons
- Anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances during the “come down” period after use
- Long-term impairments in cognition, memory, and mood (still subject to debate)
- Predisposition for abuse and addiction
Using heavy doses, using frequently, or combining it with other drugs or medications can exacerbate these dangers. However, when respected and used properly, moderate MDMA use may carry fewer risks.
The Therapeutic Potential of MDMA
Currently, there is a resurgence in research on using MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat conditions like:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Social anxiety in autistic adults
- Anxiety associated with life-threatening illnesses
The thinking is that MDMA can enhance the therapeutic process by increasing emotional openness and reducing fear/defensiveness. More research is underway, but early clinical trials have had promising results.
How Does MDMA Enter and Alter Brain Function?
When someone takes MDMA, it enters the bloodstream and can cross the blood-brain barrier to reach the central nervous system. The effects start as MDMA interacts with neurotransmitter systems like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
MDMA causes greater serotonin and norepinephrine release by entering serotonin-producing neurons via serotonin and norepinephrine transporters. It reverses the direction of these transporters to pump more serotonin and norepinephrine into the synaptic cleft.
The MDMA “High” – What’s Happening in the Brain
The MDMA high sets in as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine levels rapidly increase in the brain. This enhances mood, emotional sensitivity, feelings of intimacy, sexuality, and connectedness to others.
Areas of the brain most affected include:
- The prefrontal cortex – improved insight, empathy, peacefulness
- Basal ganglia – euphoria, pleasure from sensory stimuli
- Limbic system – enhanced sociability, increased self-confidence
- Parasympathetic system – relaxation, anti-anxiety effects
Coming Down: MDMA Depletion and Dopamine Changes
As the MDMA high wears off, users may experience a “come down” – a period of depleted serotonin levels, low mood, anxiety, or irritability. This correlates with depleted serotonin levels after the initial serotonin flush.
Some research points to dopamine possibly playing a bigger role during the come-down phase. As dopamine levels fluctuate, it can cause feelings of sadness, anxiety, anhedonia, and restlessness.
This complex neurochemical cascade explains the sequence of desirable effects, followed by a crash, that MDMA users experience. Proper aftercare and guidance can help manage this neurochemical rollercoaster.
Long-Term Changes to Brain Neurochemistry
With repeated heavy MDMA use, some studies suggest there may be longer-lasting changes to the serotonin and dopamine systems:
- Reduced serotonin synthesis and transporter sites
- Lower dopamine receptor levels
- Possible serotonin neuron damage and neurotransmitter depletion
However, these changes seem dosage and frequency-dependent. Moderate, responsible MDMA use may not produce major long-term changes in brain function and chemistry.
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