Drug Facts: Ecstasy

First published 2003. To view the latest Heads Up content, click here.

What is it?
Ecstasy, or methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), is part hallucinogen and part stimulant. 

How many teens use ecstasy?
According to a 2001 NIDA-funded study, 5.2% of 8th-graders had tried ecstasy; 8% of 10th-graders had tried the drug; and 11.7% of 12th-graders. 

How does it make a user feel?
In the short term, ecstasy can make some users feel confident, blissful, and uninhibited. Users may also have negative experiences, like anxiety attacks. 

What are the side effects?
“E” can damage a user’s brain. “Moderate to heavy ecstasy users are likely to have memory and sleep problems and experience depression,” says Dr. Glen Hanson from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). How does that happen? Ecstasy can “x out” the fibers of neurons that carry serotonin, a chemical messenger that plays a big role in mood, pain, sleep, memory, and thinking. 

Do the neuron fibers grow back?
Sometimes they do grow back, but not necessarily in the same parts of the brain. “It’s like cutting off a limb of a fruit tree,” says Dr. Hanson. “The tree’s still alive and can sprout a new limb somewhere else, but it may not bear as much fruit as the old one.”

Serotonin travels through the healthy brain by jumping from cell to cell along the fibers of neurons (brain cells). But ecstasy use damages the terminals (ends) of neuron fibers. Chemical messages relating to mood, sleep, memory, and more are disrupted.

Ecstasy Can Kill
Nineteen-year-old Melissa Ross died after trying ecstasy for the first time. The Emory University sophomore had hoped to dance the night away with friends at an Atlanta club. Instead, she ended up in the morgue.

News of her death shocked Bill Gentry, a close friend who remembers singing and playing piano with Melissa in their dorm lobby. “Melissa was probably one of the cleanest people I’d ever known. She didn’t do drugs, smoke, or even drink. She probably wanted to try ecstasy and see what it was like,” he said. “I’m sure if she knew ecstasy could kill, she never would have taken it.”

Melissa died from a fatal heat reaction, known as hyperthermia. Part stimulant, ecstasy acts on the brain’s hypothalamus. It ramps up heart rate and blood pressure and disrupts the brain’s ability to regulate body temperature. A brain unable to cool off an overexerted body on a jam-packed dance floor spells disaster. “The body sweats and the extreme loss of water causes dehydration,” says Dr. Hanson. “Users tend to ignore some of these symptoms, partly because the drug masks them, and partly because they’re distracted by the social setting.”

Beware of Club Drugs
Ecstasy and other so-called club drugs emerged from the underground rave scene. Some produce a sense of detachment from the user’s surroundings or self—or even real unconsciousness. Because of these “dissociative” effects, these drugs are often used in date rapes. All club drugs can cause serious health consequences or, in some cases, death. Combining them with alcohol is especially dangerous.

  • GHB or Gamma-hydroxybutyrate (aka G, liquid ecstasy, and Georgia Home Boy) has euphoric, sedative, and anabolic (bodybuilding) effects. A liquid or powder with a salty taste, it may be added to spring water or concealed in mouthwash bottles. With flavorings, it can be passed off as a high-carb drink. 
  • Ketamine (aka Special K or K) is a dissociative drug commonly used as a horse tranquilizer. A powder or liquid, it is snorted, sprinkled onto cigarettes, injected, or hidden in drinks. 
  • Methamphetamine (aka speed, ice, chalk, and meth), a stimulant, excites the central nervous system. It is a white, odorless, bitter-tasting crystalline powder that is snorted or smoked, or dissolved in water or alcohol and injected or swallowed. 
  • LSD or Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (aka acid) is a hallucinogen, or drug that causes hallucinations. It may be distributed in breath-mint vials, treated sugar cubes, gel wafers called “windowpanes,” pills, or decorated blotter paper that is chewed or swallowed.

For more information on ecstasy, check out:

• NIDA’s pages on ecstasy: www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/mdma-ecstasymolly

• NIDA’s site on club drugs: www.clubdrugs.org

• The Web site for “In the Mix,” the award-winning PBS reality series for teens, which devotes an episode to ecstasy use by teens: www.pbs.org/inthemix/ecstasy_index.html

(Image Credits: Diagram: 5W Infographics; Illustration: Stephen Kroninger)

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