The Lure Of Ecstasy

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Neuroscientist Ricaurte was the first to record the effects of MDMA on the brain; he says it damages certain cells

Normally, serotonin levels are exquisitely maintained, which is crucial because the chemical helps manage not only mood but also body temperature. In fact, overheating is MDMA's worst short-term danger. Flushing the system with serotonin, particularly when users take several pills over the course of one night, can short-circuit the body's ability to control its temperature. Dancing in close quarters doesn't help, and because some novice users don't know to drink water, e users' temperatures can climb as high as 110[degrees]. At such extremes, the blood starts to coagulate. In the past two decades, dozens of users around the world have died this way.

There are long-term dangers too. By forcing serotonin out, MDMA resculpts the brain cells that release the chemical. The changes to these cells could be permanent. Johns Hopkins neurotoxicologist George Ricaurte has shown that serotonin levels are significantly lower in animals that have been given about the same amount of MDMA as you would find in just one ecstasy pill.

In November, Ricaurte recorded for the first time the effects of ecstasy on the human brain. He gave memory tests to people who said they had last used ecstasy two weeks before, and he compared their results with those of a control group of people who said they had never taken e. The ecstasy users fared worse on the tests. Computer images that give detailed snapshots of brain activity also showed that e users have fewer serotonin receptors in their brains than nonusers, even two weeks after their last exposure. On the strength of these studies as well as a large number of animal studies, Ricaurte has hypothesized that the damage is irreversible.

Ricaurte's work has received much attention, owing largely to the government's well-intentioned efforts to warn kids away from ecstasy. But his work isn't conclusive. The major problem is that his research subjects had used all kinds of drugs, not just ecstasy. (And there was no way to tell that the ecstasy they had taken was pure MDMA.) And critics say even if MDMA does cause the changes to the brain that Ricaurte has documented, those changes may carry no functional consequences. "None of the subjects that Ricaurte studied had any evidence of brain or psychological dysfunction," says cuny's Morgan. "His findings should not be dismissed, but they may simply mean that we have a whole lot of plasticity--that we can do without serotonin and be O.K. We have a lot of unanswered questions."

Ricaurte told TIME that "the vast majority of people who have experimented with MDMA appear normal, and there's no obvious indication that something is amiss." Ricaurte says we may discover in 10 or 20 years that those appearances are horribly wrong, but others are more sanguine about MDMA's risks, given its benefits. For more than 15 years, Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, has been the world's most enthusiastic proponent of therapeutic MDMA use. He believes that the compound has a special ability to help people make sense of themselves and the world, that taking MDMA can lead people to inner truths. Independently wealthy, he uses his organization to promote his views and to "study ways to take drugs to open the unconscious."

Doblin first tried MDMA in 1982, when it was still legal and when the phrase "open the unconscious" didn't sound quite so gooey. At that time, MDMA had a small following among avant-garde psychotherapists, who gave it to blindfolded patients in quiet offices and then asked them to discuss traumas. Many of the therapists had heard about MDMA from the published work of former Dow chemist Shulgin. According to Shulgin (who is often wrongly credited with discovering MDMA), another therapist to whom he gave the drug in turn named it Adam and introduced it to more than 4,000 people.

Among these patients were a few entrepreneurs, folks who thought MDMA felt too good to be confined to a doctor's office. One who was based in Texas (and who has kept his identity a secret) hired a chemist, opened an MDMA lab and promptly renamed the drug ecstasy, a more marketable term than Adam or "empathy" (his first choice, since it better describes the effects). He began selling it to fashionable bars and clubs in Dallas, where bartenders sold it along with cocktails; patrons charged the $20 pills, plus $1.33 tax, on their American Express cards.

Manufacturers at the time flaunted the legality of the drug, promoting it as lacking the hallucinatory effects of LSD and the addictive properties of coke and heroin. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was caught by surprise by the new drug not long after it had been embarrassed by the spread of crack. The administration quickly used new discretionary powers to outlaw MDMA, pointing to the private labs and club use as evidence of abuse. dea officials also cited rudimentary studies showing that ecstasy users had vomited and experienced blood-pressure fluctuations.

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