Ecstasy abuse produces an altered reality and creates a lasting high. Chemically, Ecstasy lowers the levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are important neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the central nervous system). Some researchers have noted a similarity between long-term Ecstasy abuse and the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Evidence suggests that even a single dose of Ecstasy is neurotoxic (poisonous) to the human brain. Its use is associated with anxiety and depression, mood swings, memory problems, and sleep disturbance. Long-term Ecstasy abuse may depress immune system functioning.
Ecstasy's short-term side effects are alarming. This drug interferes with the brain's essential chemical functions. It can scramble the body's temperature signals to the brain, which can cause hypothermia, dehydration, or heat stroke—especially dangerous for users who exert themselves with dancing.
Ecstasy, also called MDMA, is a partial derivative of amphetamine and has effects similar to others in the amphetamine group. It is sometimes classified as a hallucinogen. Ecstasy abuse has spread, especially on American college campuses and among young people all around the country.
Most individuals who use Ecstasy also use other drugs, most commonly alcohol, which can exacerbate the drug's harmful effects. According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network, 86 percent of all Ecstasy-related emergency-room cases in 2001 involved Ecstasy's being mixed with other substances. Nearly half of these cases were when it was mixed with alcohol. Other names for Ecstasy include MBDB, MDE, MDA, MDEA and 2CB. When Ecstasy abuse takes place users usually swallow it in tablet form, but it can be injected, snorted, or smoked.
Because Ecstasy is a stimulant, it causes increased neural activity across the central nervous system and has diverse stimulating and arousing effects on other organ systems. Evidence suggests that Ecstasy produces euphoric feelings through action on the neurotransmitter called dopamine; however, other effects, especially the more general physiological effects of the drug, can be attributed to action on the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine. Evidence suggests that Ecstasy is a neurotoxin, meaning that it has direct, damaging effects on nerve cells.
Because of the popularity of Ecstasy, it is often in short supply, placing pressure on unscrupulous dealers to substitute other drugs for it. Users of Ecstasy are often at risk of dehydration, water intoxication, and heat stroke. Ecstasy abuse often elevates temperature and, in addition to stimulating the body, often leaves users out of touch with their own level of exertion. The result may be dehydration from over-activity without enough water, or at the other extreme, drinking enough water to cause water intoxication and, in some cases, brain damage and death. The person coming down from Ecstasy often experiences exhaustion, irritability, paranoia, and depression. Coming down from higher doses may cause convulsions, hallucinations, and irrational behavior.
In severe cases, people have died from seizures and strokes, as well as cardiovascular and kidney failure, from Ecstasy abuse. As a result of the drug's increased use, the amount of Ecstasy-related emergency-room cases quadrupled between 1998 and 2000 alone. The amount of deaths involving Ecstasy has also increased. "One of the biggest problems we're having with Ecstasy is people thinking if you die from it, you're not using it right," said Brian Blake, spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Ecstasy abuse skyrocketed in the late 1990s, from an estimated 300,000 new users in 1995 to almost 2 million new users in 2000, according to the 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. Among high school students surveyed in a 2001 NIDA study, 12 percent of 12th graders, 8 percent of 10th graders, and 4 percent of 8th graders stated that they had used Ecstasy in the past year. Researchers state that current Ecstasy abuse rates appear to have reached a plateau, but that its widespread popularity has caused teenagers to now use Ecstasy right in their own homes.