His future was full of promise. He was a certified scuba diver, a black belt in karate, and honors student who was headed to college to study biomedical engineering. Then, one night Kyle took MDMA with another teen in the front seat of his car. The 18-year-old isn’t going anywhere, anymore. He died of an overdose of the popular yet dangerous stimulant.
Public health and law enforcement authorities warn that heroin and other opioids are not the only drugs that lead to unnecessary fatalities. Stimulants like MDMA can also cause deadly overdoses. Unfortunately for Kyle and others, misinformed thrill-seekers like him, that realization came too late.
What is MDMA?
MDMA – or 3,4-methylendedioxymethamphetamine – is a psychoactive drug that became a big recreational hit, especially on the club and party scene, because of the heightened sensations and energy it unleashes. Within minutes, MDMA unlocks the shackles of inhibition to alter the mind, and for the next five hours, everyone within reach feels like a best friend. But, as with other drugs that are highly abusive, MDMA is not all that it is made out to be. This type of feel-good experience carries a dangerous price tag.
Even in small doses, MDMA can cause extremely high fevers, liver failure, muscle breakdown, and cardiac arrest. What’s more, some medical professionals believe because MDMA raises the body’s temperature to dangerous levels. The drug can lead to seizures and brain damage.
How Does MDMA Cause Brain Damage?
MDMA is a mood-altering drug synthetically manufactured in laboratories. Often referred to as “Molly” or “ecstasy,” MDMA is both a stimulant and hallucinogen that increases energy and heightens feelings of warmth toward surrounding objects and conditions while creating psychedelic perceptions. Individuals who take an MDMA capsule, tablet, or pill are likely to feel like everybody is their best friend for hours on end.
In its purest form, MDMA comes as a crystallized powder, but much of it is typically found tainted with other harmful and dangerous drugs, such as fentanyl. Because MDMA elevates the core body temperature to dangerously high levels, even one dose can trigger seizures and lead to brain damage and death.
Dehydration, the byproduct of the added energy released when MDMA is absorbed into the bloodstream, is the most immediate risk. When an individual has been sweating profusely, the body not only overheats but also filters salt at alarming rates, which brings about headaches, confusion, and fatigue. The natural response is to rehydrate by drinking more water than usual, which dilutes salt content in the body even more.
The combination of dehydration and low sodium levels prevents blood from reaching the brain. When the bloodstream cannot transport enough oxygen to the cerebrum, the potential for brain damage rises.
How Does MDMA Work?
About 45 minutes after entering the bloodstream, MDMA components attach to receptors and release three neurotransmitters deep inside the brain. These chemicals – serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine – influence how the brain functions.
Serotonin. Regulates mood, social behavior, sexual desire, sleep, and appetite
Dopamine. Regulates movement, pleasure, and emotional responses
Norepinephrine. Releases glucose to elevate heart rate and blood pressure
When these neurotransmitters are activated, almost anything can happen, in both the long and short term. Although all three neurotransmitters are stimulated, serotonin is the most powerful chemical released. Because it contributes to happiness and pleasure, serotonin is also most closely associated with MDMA.
By releasing more serotonin than the other neurotransmitters, MDMA depletes the brain of this important chemical, creating negative psychological effects that may linger for days.
Because MDMA does not always break down, repeated doses of the drug within short periods can interfere with the body’s metabolism, causing harmful levels to build up in the bloodstream that affects the heart’s ability to beat normally. When blood can no longer carry enough oxygen to the brain, mild symptoms of what’s called hypoxia may initially emerge in the form of impaired memory and motor functions.
What are the Short-Term Risks of MDMA Use?
Individuals who abuse MDMA are prone to low serotonin levels, which are likely to lead
to episodes of confusion, depression, anxiety, paranoia, and impaired memory and concentration. The continued release of norepinephrine is likely to result in cognitive impairment, intense emotional excitement, and euphoria.
All three neurotransmitters are influenced by gender, and dosage, frequency, and duration of abuse, as well as the likelihood that MDMA has been mixed with another harmful substance.
MDMA will generally make its presence known within 45 minutes of intake. Some of the warning signs of health complications from MDMA in the short term include:
- Hyperthermia or rise in body temperature
- Sodium or electrolyte imbalance
- High blood pressure or hypertension
- Involuntary jaw clenching and teeth grinding
- Muscle or joint stiffness
- Lack of appetite
- Restless legs
- Hot flashes or chills
- Panic attacks
- Loss of consciousness
- Kidney failure
- Swelling of the brain
Like most drugs that alter brain structure and activity, MDMA risks increase with continued use. Days or weeks of serotonin deprivation may result in:
- Arrhythmia and heart damage
- Impaired attention and memory
- Sleep disturbances
- Lack of concentration
- Poor appetite
- Heart disease
- Decreased cognitive function
Does MDMA Cause Permanent Brain Damage?
Although debate continues about how much MDMA is needed to harm the brain, some damage can and will occur from recreational use. Beside serotonin depletion, MDMA is believed to damage axons – the nerve fibers that neurotransmitters use as pathways for sending messages to the brain.
The good news is that the human brain is resilient enough to provide hope for long-term MDMA abusers who may have suffered damage. Evidence suggests that the brain can grow more cells over time. However, the same cannot be said for brain axons, which offers a serious threat to the serotonin system and the feelings of happiness and pleasure it maintains.
Why Should I Detox?
Although withdrawal does not pose a medical danger or intense physical discomfort, MDMA abuse will likely trigger profound depression, negative feelings, and quite possibly suicidal thoughts. And because MDMA is part amphetamine, these emotions may be more intense and prolonged than other drugs like alcohol and cocaine. For this reason, detoxification under the care of a medical professional is strongly recommended for MDMA withdrawal. This type of safe detoxification can be conducted at a hospital or a residential substance abuse treatment facility. Here, doctors can prescribe medications to temper symptoms of anxiety, depression and the psychological cravings to abuse again.
Licensed medical staff can also monitor progress, prevent any unnecessary health complications and provide the emotional support needed for a return to good health.
What is the Next Treatment Step?
Thanks to your MDMA addiction, you are no longer the life of the party you once thought you were. That roller-coaster ride of yours came to a dead stop when you entered detox. If you are serious about continuing that sobriety you gained, the next step in treatment should involve a stay at a residential substance abuse treatment facility.
Here, you will find there is more to staying clean than you may have realized. Under the supervision of certified health and substance abuse professionals, issues surrounding your addiction will be addressed and an individualized recovery plan including one-on-one counseling, group therapy, and educational workshops will supply the tools needed to prevent relapse and increase the chances of continued sobriety.