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.
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.
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.