What is MDMA?
MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), was first developed in the early 1900s in Germany as a parent compound to be used to synthesize other pharmaceuticals. It was patented in 1914 by a drug company called Merck, and at first, scientists originally thought it could be used as an appetite suppressant. During the 1970s, in the United States, psychiatrists experimented in using MDMA as a psychotherapeutic tool. MDMA gathered a small following among psychiatrists between the late 70s and early 80s, and it earned the moniker “penicillin for the soul” – as it was thought to enhance communication in patient sessions and reportedly also helped user find accountability and insights for their problems.
In late 2000 the FDA approved the first small clinical trial for MDMA in psychotherapy and it was determined to aid in recovery from post traumatic stress disorder.
Recreationally speaking, MDMA is commonly known as “Ecstasy” or “Molly”, and is consumed primarily for its euphoric/empathogenic effects. It is also known for having psychedelic effects similar to mescaline. Pharmacologically speaking, MDMA acts as a serotonin-norepinephrine-dopaminereleasing agent and reuptake inhibitor.
In popular culture MDMA is sometimes referred to as a “club drug” because it is favored in the nightlife scene, at raves, as well as music festivals/concerts.
How Does MDMA Work?
MDMA works by increasing the activity of three neurotransmitters (the chemical messengers of brain cells): serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. The effects are also believed to be very similar to stimulants/amphetamines.
Serotonin is responsible for controlling feeling of pain, our moods, and our sexual desires. When the extra serotonin is released by MDMA, it causes mood-elevating effects in its users, such as euphoria, alertness, intensified sense of touch as well as feelings of love, sexual arousal and trust. Users typically report feeling heightened senses of emotional closeness as well as empathy.
How is MDMA Used?
MDMA is typically taken in the form of a pill or capsule, which are sometimes different colors, and have cartoonish images on them. When taken as “Molly” (slang for “molecular”) it is in the form of pure crystalline powder. It is also often taken in conjunction with other psychoactive drugs, such as LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and ketamine. Users sometimes use mentholated products while taking MDMA for its cooling sensation.
The effects generally begin 15 minutes after ingestion, and last anywhere from 3 to 6 hours. It is not uncommon for users to take several subsequent doses of MDMA once the effects of the first dose begin to wane.
Positive Side Effects of MDMA
Positive effects include…
- Intense feelings of well-being/happiness
- Increased sociability
- Ease in communication
- Sense of inner peace
- Mild hallucinations
- Enhanced sensation, perception and sexuality
- Increased stamina/energy
- Feelings of invincibility
- Increased feeling of connection to others
- Enhanced connection to music
Negative Side Effects of MDMA
Negative effects include…
- Increases in heart rate and blood pressure
- Muscle tension
- Teeth clenching
- Nausea (feeling sick)
- Blurred vision
- Chills or sweating
- Higher body temperature (can lead to serious heart, liver, or kidney problems)
Long term abuse of MDMA can lead to permanent damage to the kidneys, and also increase the risk of heart attack, stroke and high blood pressure. MDMA use has also been shown to produce brain lesions, a form of brain damage, in the serotonergic neural pathways of animals, but it is unclear if typical MDMA users may suffer similar neurotoxic brain lesions.
Adverse changes to neuroplasticity and white matter in the brain, also occur when humans use low doses of MDMA. Damage can also be done to the teeth and gums of those who abuse the substance, as oftentimes it can cause the user to grind teeth – which can lead to cavities and gum disease.
Therapeutic Usage of MDMA
MAPS is in the process of funding clinical trials using MDMA as a tool to assist psychotherapy for the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to their research, “Preliminary studies have shown that MDMA in conjunction with psychotherapy can help people overcome PTSD, and possibly other disorders as well. MDMA is known for increasing feelings of trust and compassion towards others, which could make an ideal adjunct to psychotherapy for PTSD”.
Studies are also being done with MDMA in relation to enhancing the quality of life in autistic adults with social anxiety as well.
Possession of MDMA is illegal in most countries, but limited exceptions exist for scientific and medical research. It is currently placed in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act in the United States.
In 2013 it was reported that between 9 and 28 million people used ecstasy (0.2% to 0.6% of the global population between the ages of 15 and 65). According to reports, this percentage was broadly similar to the number of users for cocaine, substituted amphetamines, and opioids, but far fewer than the number of cannabis users.