Ecstasy Addiction and Treatment

What is Ecstasy?

MDMA is a synthetic, psychoactive drug with both stimulant (amphetamine-like) and hallucinogenic (LSD-like) properties. Street names for MDMA include Ecstasy, Adam, XTC, hug, beans, and love drug. Its chemical structure (3-4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine, "MDMA") is similar to methamphetamine, methylenedioxyamphetamine (MDA), and mescaline - other synthetic drugs known to cause brain damage.

MDMA also is neurotoxic. In addition, in high doses it can cause a sharp increase in body temperature (malignant hyperthermia) leading to muscle breakdown and kidney and cardiovascular system failure.

Health Hazards

Brain imaging research in humans indicates that MDMA causes injury to the brain, affecting neurons that use the chemical serotonin to communicate with other neurons. The serotonin system plays a direct role in regulating mood, aggression, sexual activity, sleep, and sensitivity to pain. Many of the risks users face with MDMA use are similar to those found with the use of cocaine and amphetamines:

  • Psychological difficulties, including confusion, depression, sleep problems, drug craving, severe anxiety, and paranoia - during and sometimes weeks after taking MDMA.
  • Physical symptoms such as muscle tension, involuntary teeth clenching, nausea, blurred vision, rapid eye movement, faintness, and chills or sweating.
  • Increases in heart rate and blood pressure, a special risk for people with circulatory or heart disease.
  • Also, there is evidence that people who develop a rash that looks like acne after using MDMA may be risking severe side effects, including liver damage, if they continue to use the drug.

Effects of MDMA Chart

Research links MDMA use to long-term damage to those parts of the brain critical to thought and memory. One study, in primates, showed that exposure to MDMA for 4 days caused brain damage that was evident 6 to 7 years later.
MDA, the parent drug of MDMA, is an amphetamine-like drug that has also been abused and is similar in chemical structure to MDMA. Research shows that MDA also destroys serotonin-producing neurons in the brain.

MDMA also is related in its structure and effects to methamphetamine, which has been shown to cause degeneration of neurons containing the neurotransmitter dopamine. Damage to these neurons is the underlying cause of the motor disturbances seen in Parkinson's disease. Symptoms of this disease begin with lack of coordination and tremors and can eventually result in a form of paralysis.

Hidden Risk: Drug Purity

Other drugs chemically similar to MDMA, such as MDA (methylenedioxyamphetamine, the parent drug of MDMA) and PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine, associated with fatalities in the U.S. and Australia) are sometimes sold as ecstasy. These drugs can be neurotoxic or create additional health risks to the user. Also, ecstasy tablets may contain other substances in addition to MDMA, such as ephedrine (a stimulant); dextromethorphan (DXM, a cough suppressant that has PCP-like effects at high doses); ketamine (an anesthetic used mostly by veterinarians that also has PCP-like effects); caffeine; cocaine; and methamphetamine. While the combination of MDMA with one or more of these drugs may be inherently dangerous, users might also combine them with substances such as marijuana and alcohol, putting themselves at further physical risk.

Extent of Use

National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)

More than 11 million persons aged 12 or older reported using ecstasy at least once in their lifetimes, according to the 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The number of current (use in past month) users in 2004 was estimated to be 450,000.

In 2004, an estimated 450,000 people in the U.S. age 12 and older used MDMA in the past 30 days. Ecstasy use dropped significantly among persons 18 to 25 -- from 14.8% in 2003 to 13.8% in 2004 for lifetime use, and from 3.7% to 3.1% for past year use. Other 2004 NSDUH results show significant reductions in lifetime and past year use among 18- to 20-year-olds, reductions in past month use for 14- or 15-year-olds, and past year and past month reductions in use among females.

Community Epidemiology Work Group (CEWG)

In many of the areas monitored by CEWG members, MDMA, once used primarily at dance clubs, raves, and college scenes, is being used in a number of other social settings. In addition, some members reported increased use of MDMA among African-American and Hispanic populations.

Monitoring the Future (MTF) Survey

Lifetime use dropped significantly among 12th-graders in 2005, from 7.5% in 2004 to 5.4%. The perceived risk in occasional MDMA use declined significantly among 8th-graders in 2005, and perceived availability decreased among 12th-graders.

Lifetime Prevalence of MDMA Use by Students

Monitoring the Future Survey, 2003 - 2005
















What Do We Know About Preventing Ecstasy Abuse?

Because social context and networks seem to be an important component of MDMA use, the use of peer-led advocacy and drug prevention programs may be a promising approach to reduce MDMA use among adolescents and young adults. High schools and colleges can serve as important venues for delivering messages about the effects of MDMA use. Providing accurate scientific information regarding the effects of MDMA is important if we hope to reduce the damaging effects of this drug. Education is one of the most important tools for use in preventing MDMA abuse.

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