More commonly known today by the street name Ecstasy, MDMA (Systematic name: 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine) is a psychoactive substance whose primary effect is to stimulate the brain to rapidly secrete large amounts of serotonin, causing a general sense of openness, energy, euphoria, and well-being. Tactile sensations are enhanced, making general physical contact with others more pleasurable, but contrary to popular mythology it generally does not have aphrodesic effects. Its ability to facilitate self-examination with reduced fear has proven useful in some therapeutic settings, leading to its 2001 approval by the United States FDA for use in patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Though overdoses from pure MDMA itself are extremely rare, acute dehydration among users who forget to drink water is common, as the drug masks one's normal sense of exhaustion and thirstiness. Another danger comes from other, more dangerous but cheaper chemicals (such as PMA) which are frequently "cut in" to ecstasy tablets to increase dealer profits. Long-term effects in humans are largely unknown and the subject of much controversy.

MDMA is also known by many other street names, including Adam, Beans, Eccies, Rolls, X, XTC, Vitamin E and E.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Ecstasy as a recreational drug
3 Chemistry
4 Effects
5 Ecstasy and the Law
6 External links


MDMA was first patented on Christmas eve 1914 by the German pharmaceutical company Merck, two years after its first synthesis. At the time, Merck was systematically synthesizing and patenting a wide variety of chemically related compounds which could be potentially used as drugs, and MDMA remained largely forgotten for many years.

Contrary to many rumours, the drug was never used as an appetite suppressant or as a stimulant for armed forces during war time. MDMA was first brought to public attention through Dr. Alexander Shulgin in the 1960s who recommended it for use in certain therapy sessions. It was widely used therapeutically by US psychotherapists (especially on the West Coast) because of its empathogenic effects until its criminalization in the late 1980s, and a small number of therapists continue to use it in their practices today. (See below for 2001 FDA approval for use in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.)

Until the mid 1980s, MDMA was not illegal in the United States. Recreationally, it first came into prominence in certain trendy yuppie bars in the Dallas area, then in gay dance clubs. From there, use spread to rave clubs, and then to mainstream society. During the 1990s, MDMA use became increasingly popular among young adults in universities and later in high schools, along with the growing popularity of the rave subculture.

Ecstasy as a recreational drug

The primary effects of MDMA include openness, euphoria, empathy, love, and an appreciation of the repetitive rhythms of dance music. Its initial adoption by the dance club sub-culture is probably due to the enhancement of the dancing experience.

Taking MDMA or Ecstasy is referred to as rolling or dropping. Known in its related subcultures as E, X, pills, disco biscuits or beans, MDMA use has increased markedly since the late 80's and spread beyond the original sub-cultures to mainstream use. Prices have also been falling since its introduction, with an evening's drug use often costing less than an equivalent evening drinking alcohol.


MDMA is usually ingested in pill form. Pills come in a variety of "brands", usually identified by the icons stamped on the pills. The brands never consistently designate the actual active compound within the pill, as anyone can make their own pills which copy the features of a well-known brand.

The pills themselves rarely have MDMA as the only active ingredient: many pills contain variants such as MDEA, MDA and MDBD. Pills have also occasionally been known to contain other less expensive additives such as amphetamines (speed), DXM, ephedrine, PMA, ketamine (Special K), and others.

While overdose from MDMA itself is rare, unfortunately many more toxic substances are often sold as Ecstasy, and overdose or other adverse reaction to adulterants is regrettably not uncommon. MDMA appears to be one of the most commonly adulterated drugs. However, it is less likely that is mixed, or "cut", with another substance than that it has simply been replaced by another substance which is sold as ecstacy.

Although proper characterization of Ecstasy pills requires advanced lab facilities such as GCMS, it is also possible to use a less accurate presumptive alkaloid test known as the Marquis reagent. DanceSafe sells testing kits, and includes an extensive database of photographs of different pills, along with the results of a laboratory analysis of their contents.


Neurological Effects

Serotonin is the chemical responsible for good mood and pleasure. MDMA's main action is believed to cause serotonin neurons in the brain to dump abnormally large amount of serotonin into the synapse during the 4 to 8 hour high, which is responsible for the primary subjective effects. MDMA also raises dopamine and norepinephrine levels.

Apart from the dangers from impurities, the primary acute risks of taking Ecstasy are allergic reaction, which is quite rare, and dehydration. MDMA tends to mask the body's normal thirst and exhaustion responses in a euphoric haze, so dehydration is relatively common, instigated by the fact the user is dancing for long periods of time without drinking. Most regular users are aware of the risk of dehydration and take care to consume lots of water to prevent dehydration. There have been a number of cases of users paranoid about becoming dehydrated drinking too much water and suffering from hyponatremia (swelling of the brain).

Systemic Effects

Other effects include:

Most users will experience a come-down (sometimes referred to as being ate up) over the days following the trip due to the brain's serotonin stores being depleted. The come-down usually takes the form of depression, tiredness, and mild nausea. This typically wears off within a few days, although regular users may not feel their normal selves for up to a week later.

The use of come-down kits is increasing in popularity to ameliorate the effects. These usually include vitamin supplements and antioxidants to restore essentials which have been depleted over the trip, during which users generally do not eat. Anecdotal evidence suggests the main benefit comes from Tryptophan or 5-HTP supplements which provide much needed precursors to serotonin that the brain has used up during the experience.

Long Term Effects

Long-term effects are still unknown and heavily debated among scientists, notwithstanding the tremendous amount of FUD propagated through the media by well-financed, politically motivated anti-drug groups (including some scientists).

Some experiments indicate that continuous use can lead to the serotonin cells in the brain becoming damaged, probably through the uptake of dopamine into serotonin cells (where it's not supposed to be), where it is then metabolized into hydrogen peroxide, which causes oxidation damage to the interior of the serotonin cell.

This effect has been observed in the brains of rats, where serotonin cells of animals given extremely high doses of MDMA, usually one to two orders of magnitude greater than a typical human dose, over a prolonged period of time become withered and useless. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that the administration of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (which bind to the serotonin cell's reuptake ports and thus block dopamine, and everything else, from entering the serotonin cells) along with or immediately following MDMA seems to completely block neuron damage in rats given MDMA.

There is also some experimental evidence indicating that long-term ecstasy users experience memory difficulties. However, such research is problematic as ecstasy users are much more likely than control subjects to have taken other drugs in addition to ecstasy, or even abused various chemicals.

Ecstasy and Parkinson's

Research at the University of Manchester indicates that Ecstasy dramatically reduces tremors in patients receiving L-DOPA treatment for Parkinson's Disease.

A research team at Johns Hopkins University implicated MDMA as a cause of Parkinson's-like brain abnormalities, and suggested that a single night's Ecstasy use caused permanent and serious brain damage. These claims were hotly disputed by scientists at New York University and other institutions. Criticisms of the study included that it used injection rather than oral administration; that this type and scale of damage (>20% mortality) would translate to hundreds of thousands or millions of deaths which had not materialized in the real world amidst broad global MDMA usage; and, more important, that other researchers could not replicate the study's results.

On September 6, 2003, the author of the study, Dr. George A. Ricaurte and his team announced that they were retracting all results of their commonly cited and controversial study. The researchers said that the labels on the drugs had been somehow switched, and they had inadvertently injected their experimental monkeys and baboons with methamphetamine instead of MDMA.

Ricaurte had also come under fire for supplying PET scans to the US Office of National Drug Control Policy that were used in anti-drug literature (Plain Brain/Brain After Ecstasy) that seemed to suggest MDMA created holes in human brains, an implication that critics called misleading. Ricaurte later asked the Agency to change the literature, citing the "poor quality" of the images.

See the CBS News article linked below for more information.

Ecstasy and the Law

Use, supply and trafficking of ectasy is illegal in most countries. In the United States, MDMA is on the DEA's Schedule 1, for drugs deemed to have no medical uses and a high potential for abuse. During the hearings to reclassify MDMA, most experts recommended Schedule 3 prescription status for the drug, due to its beneficial usage in psychotherapy. The judge overseeing the hearings also made this recommendation. Nonetheless, DEA classified it as Schedule 1.

In 2001, however, the FDA approved MDMA for studies treating patients with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

See also recreational drug use

External links

In long-standing usage, ecstasy is a category of trances and trancelike states in which an individual has a heightened capacity for one or more of certain kinds of thought or experience. These include emotional feeling, concentration on a specific task, and especially awareness of one's unconscious mind or spirit (the latter type of ecstasy often takes the form of religious ecstasy). This heightened capacity is typically accompanied by diminished awareness of some other matters. For instance, if one is concentrating on a physical task, then one might cease to be aware of any intellectual thoughts. On the other hand, making a spirit journey in an ecstatic trance involves the cessation of voluntary bodily movement.

Achieving ecstatic trances is a major activity of shamans, who seek ecstasy for such purposes as travelling to heaven or the underworld, guiding or otherwise interacting with spirits, clairvoyance, and healing. Some shamans use drugs from such plants as peyote and cannabis in their attempts to reach ecstasy, while others rely on such non-chemical means as ritual, music, dance, or visual designs, as aids to mental discipline. The rituals followed by some athletes in preparing for contests are dismissed as superstition; This is a device of sports psychologists to help them to attain an ecstasy-like state.

The drug now called ecstasy is very different from much of the experience traditionally called ecstasy in that it is generally used recreationally rather than spiritually.