• Samantha Schofield

MDMA: how bad are pingas?

MDMA is a popular party drug which visits many Australian nightclubs every weekend, and the occasional music fest. Despite its popularity, many don’t understand how the drug actually affects the body. Today, we will explain how MDMA makes you lose your inhibitions dancing to Flume, and the comedown that follows…

Ecstasy! Ecstasy! E! E! E! Ecstasy!

MDMA, otherwise known in sciencey-terms as 3,4-Methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine is a synthetic drug made by some raving German scientists in 1912, initially created to help control bleeding. MDMA is classed as a stimulant. Stimulant drugs are drugs in which increase activity in the brain and body. MDMA has also been classed as an entactogen, meaning it increases empathy and self-awareness. MDMA is also commonly mixed with other drugs, at different concentrations. This can be harmful and dangerous as it makes the biological effects harder to determine. This article will be referring to pure MDMA, so we don’t get too confused.

How are you taking it?

The majority of people take MDMA via a tablet or pill. The pill is ingested and is dissolved in the stomach. Depending on the type of pill, the rate of absorption differs. For example, a hard pill takes longer to dissolve rather than drinking a dissolved pill, which would be quickly absorbed and also taste like shit. The pill is then absorbed in the intestinal tract, passing the drug into the bloodstream. The drug then moves throughout the body and towards the brain.

Snorting MDMA is a different experience and has a faster onset of symptoms. This is because the nasal membrane is very porous, meaning the MDMA can easily slide right through into the blood vessels that are in the nasal passage. This means a quicker buzz. When snorting, some of the MDMA doesn’t make it straight to the bloodstream and instead gets caught in the mucous at the back of your nose, which travels down into the throat when the person swallows it. This leaves a nasty taste in the mouth and the MDMA can then be absorbed by the intestinal tract later on.

Your brain on disco biscuits

MDMA affects three of the body’s neurotransmitters (the chemical messengers of the brain): dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin. The chemical structure of MDMA is very similar to the neurotransmitters it affects. This allows MDMA to enter the brain’s neurons through the transporters meant for the neurotransmitters, for example serotonin (the feel-good chemical). The presence of the MDMA blocks these transporters. The neuron cannot reuptake this increased serotonin (which would happen naturally) because the MDMA is blocking the transporters. This causes serotonin to be continually released out of the neuron, causing an accumulation of serotonin in the synapse (the space between neurons). This means increased firing of serotonin (and the other neurotransmitters) to parts of the brain and body that it affects, and an increase in activity of normal serotonin actions.

Serotonin affects things like appetite, mood, memory, sleep and sexual arousal. Dopamine affects high energy and rewards, and noradrenaline affects heart rate. MDMA causes a heightened state of all these, causing the person to feel a high. A person on MDMA feels increased extroversion, empathy, emotion toward others, and enhanced sensory experiences. Serotonin and dopamine also affect muscles that control the pupils, the iris dilator and the iris sphincter (hehe). This enlarges the pupils to give that dinner-plate-eye look. A person on MDMA will also grind or clench their jaw a lot. In normal everyday life, people are constantly clenching their jaw as a reflex but because MDMA is a stimulant, this action is exaggerated. A depletion in dopamine also means we have less self-control over actions, meaning jaw swinging is hard to stop. This leads to some pretty freaky looking people in the mosh pit.

The comedown

Serotonin is chemically destroyed during the reuptake by the neurons. Because so much serotonin is available when MDMA is taken, the body destroys more serotonin then it would naturally. This causes a substantial depletion of serotonin. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter and the depletion causes negative psychological side effects including low mood, fatigue and poor memory. MDMA users describe feelings of depression, and being unsociable and unpleasant that last for several days until the body has replenished its serotonin supply. Unlike a hangover, it’s not as easy as sculling a Gatorade and eating a couple of Maccas hash browns.

Unfortunately, frequent and consistent users of MDMA could be putting themselves at risk of long-term problems. Many studies have researched the long-term effect of regular MDMA use. Research has found a decrease in the neurotransmitter transporter cells that are responsible for the reuptake of serotonin into the neuron (and out of), as well as the degeneration of parts of the neuron. This has been suggested to be correlated with impaired memory, decision making and paranoia. Although, studies are majorly restricted to animals due to MDMA being illegal and scientists can’t be snorting MDMA when they clock in at 9am on a Monday…

Sources and further reading