The Chemistry of MDMA/Ecstasy
The stimulant in Ecstasy is similar to methamphetamine. It forces the brain chemical serotonin, which is related to memory, pleasure, mood, and sleep functions, to be released in abnormally large amounts. The neurons (brain cells) that store serotonin are deformed or destroyed. Scientists have found that these injured neurons can regrow, but they may grow back abnormally or in the wrong locations. When Ecstasy wears off, the overflow of serotonin reverses to a lack of serotonin. Without enough serotonin it is difficult to sleep, learn, remember, or feel happy.
Ecstasy also causes the brain to release the chemical dopamine, the primary brain chemical associated with pleasure and addiction. After Ecstasy leaves the body, dopamine levels plummet, causing depression and irritability.
Recent studies have produced the first direct evidence that continued use of Ecstasy causes brain damage. As stated above, MDMA/Ecstasy harms neurons that release serotonin. Positron emission tomography (PET) brain scans of people who had used Ecstasy showed significant reductions in the number of serotonin transporters. Such damage limits the brain’s ability to reabsorb serotonin from the spaces between brain cells (synapses) after the serotonin has completed its work. This damage was spread throughout the brain. The more people had used Ecstasy, the more serotonin transporters they lost. A lack of serotonin transporters limits the brain’s access to and ability to use the chemical.
Another study found that heavy Ecstasy users have memory problems that persist for at least 2 weeks after they have stopped using the drug. In the study, researchers administered several standardized memory tests to participants. The participants included 24 Ecstasy users who had not used the drug for at least 2 weeks and 24 people of similar backgrounds who had never used the drug.
Compared to the nonusers, heavy Ecstasy users had significant impairments in visual and verbal memory. The more Ecstasy people had used, the harder it was for them to recall what they saw and heard during testing. The poorer memory performance of Ecstasy users is linked to lower levels of a serotonin metabolite in the central nervous system. Scientists believe Ecstasy may also impair the ability to reason verbally or sustain attention.