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Your Brain on MDMA

MDMA is the active ingredient in street drugs like “molly” and ecstasy. The common understanding, and certainly the argument from the anti-drug camp, has been that ecstasy can cause memory loss, pose a serious brain damage risk, and have long-lasting effects on behavior. Recent studies, however, suggest that these dangers may be overstated. While there are noticeable declines in some areas of cognitive function and a slight extra tendency towards depression, the evidence seems to show that moderate MDMA users suffer few ill effects in the long run.

Your brain on MDMA: How MDMA works in the brain

MDMA affects the brain by increasing the activity of at least three neurotransmitters (the chemical messengers of brain cells): serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. When you take MDMA, you generally get feelings of euphoria, a heightened sense of intimacy and pleasure, and decreased anxiety because of the effects on these neurotransmitters. The peak effects of MDMA drug use are felt 60 to 90 minutes after ingestion and last for two to four hours, followed by a gradual comedown.

Your brain on MDMA: After Effects

In general, MDMA is not physically addictive. The main addiction potential of MDMA is psychological addiction. Because of its effects on the neurotransmitters in the brain, MDMA can cause feelings of depression and drug craving when MDMA use is stopped.

Your brain on MDMA: Serotonin

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects mood, sleep, pain, emotion, appetite, and other behaviors. The increase of serotonin is what causes the feeling of happiness and excitement when your brain is on MDMA. However, MDMA use depletes the serotonin in your brain, so the next day you often feel anxious, depressed, and tired. Over time, MDMA can damage serotonin-containing neurons; some of these studies have shown these effects to be long-lasting. MDMA users experience long lasting confusion, depression, and selective impairment of working memory and attention processes.

Your brain on MDMA: Who is affected?

Factors such as gender, dosage, frequency and intensity of use, age at which use began, the use of other drugs, as well as genetic and environmental factors all play a role in some of the cognitive deficits that result from MDMA. When you use MDMA with other drugs, it increases the chance that you will have long term effects from your brain on MDMA. Also, when you do MDMA more frequently for a longer period of time, you are likely to have more long lasting effects from your brain on MDMA.

Other factors, such as sleep deprivation, dehydration and former cognitive impairment can affect your brain on MDMA.

Your brain on MDMA: Holes in the brain?

For a long time, people believed that MDMA was a lot more hazardous than it actually is. In September 2002, an article by scientist George Ricaurte was published in Science magazine. The article outlined the severe neurotoxic of MDMA on dopaminergic neurons, producing what looked like “holes” in the brain and causing Parkinson’s-like symptoms in users. The report spread like wildfire, being cited in a number of media publications.

However, the article was later retracted, with scientists admitting that the monkeys were given methamphetamines, not MDMA, and the journal was criticized for publishing an article that was clearly meant to be used as a political scare tactic. Unfortunately, the retraction did not garner as much publicity as the original article, so many in the general public still believe that MDMA will “eat holes in your brain.”

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