This week, Alexander Shulgin, the so called ‘Godfather of ecstasy’ died peacefully in his sleep.
The 88 year old is best known for introducing MDMA, the active molecule in ecstasy, to psychologists in the 1970s, and also synthesised and tested over 200 psychoactive substances during his lifetime. Here is your Quickfire Science on ecstasy with Ginny Smith and Georgia Mills
- Ecstasy is known chemically as MDMA, which is an abbreviation for methylenedioxy-methylamphetamine
- When taken, it produces feelings of euphoria, and a sense of intimacy with others. In some cases, it can also produce hallucinations.
- However in some people it can induce panic attacks, confusion and paranoia.
- MDMA increases the release of at least 3 chemicals in the brain known as neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline.
- Serotonin plays a role in regulating mood, amongst other things, and this is probably the reason for ecstasy’s mood enhancing effects.
- Users often experience a ‘come down’ after use. Serotonin is slow to be replenished after large amounts are released by the drug. This means that as its effects wear off, serotonin levels dip below normal, causing feelings of depression.
- Prolonged use can cause the serotonin receptors to become less sensitive, as they try to counteract the unnaturally huge releases of the neurotransmitter that are bombarding them on a regular basis.
- This can cause long periods of depression In people who are pre-disposed to it, even after they stop taking the drug.
- If you are taking antidepressants known as SSRIs, or ‘selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors’, such as Prozac, you won’t feel the effects of MDMA.
- This is because the anti-depressents block the MDMA’s route into the nerve cell, so it can’t cause the release of serotonin.
- It has been suggested long term usage could damage nerve cells, particularly in the hippocampus, which is important for memory. But there is still debate over whether this is specifically due to ecstasy use.
- One of the biggest dangers from taking the drug, however, is the difficulty in knowing that it is pure. Pills are often cut with other substances, ranging from caffeine to cocaine, so you can never be quite sure what you are taking.
- In the 1970s, ecstasy was trialled for use in therapy, although this never really took off. More recently, it has been suggested as a treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, allowing patients to confront their fearful memories whilst feeling calm and relaxed, thanks to the drug.