MDMA (Ecstasy) is classified as a psychostimulant. That is, it stimulates the central nervous system and basically speeds us up.
All psychostimulants cause these effects by increasing the presence of three chemicals known as neurotransmitters. These three neurotransmitters are
- Serotonin (also referred to as 5-hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT)
- Norepinephrine (also referred to as Noradrenaline)
Although it affects all three neurotransmitters, MDMA predominately works on serotonin.
What are neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals that communicate information throughout our brain and body. They relay signals between nerve cells, called “neurons.” The brain uses neurotransmitters to tell your heart to beat, your lungs to breathe, and your stomach to digest. It is believed that the brain contains several hundred different types of neurotransmitters. Different neurotransmitters serve different functions.
Serotonin is associated with levels of arousal, thermoregulation, mood, appetite, sleep and pain regulatory systems. Normally an increase in serotonin levels will cause a diminishing of appetite, sexual behaviour, aggressiveness and pain perception, and an increase in empathy for those around you.
MDMA has a far greater impact on serotonin release and uptake compared with amphetamines or cocaine.
Dopamine plays a critical role in the function of the central nervous system, including roles in behaviour, cognition, voluntary movement, sleep, mood, attention, and learning.
Dopamine is also linked with the brain's complex system of motivation and reward. The release of dopamine into the brain elicits a sense of reward and pleasure. Instances where dopamine release would normally occur include during sex, when hugging your child, or consuming a nice meal.
Norepinephrine is associated with the body’s fight or flight response, increasing heart rate, triggering the release of glucose from energy stores, and moving blood flow away from the digestive system and towards the skeletal muscles.
MDMA and the Brain
When you take MDMA these three neurotransmitters are released into the brain. Normally these chemicals are reabsorbed after they have done their job; however MDMA also impedes the reuptake of the neurotransmitters, effectively allowing these chemicals to accumulate in the brain. It is the accumulation of these chemicals within the brain that produces the effects that are both euphoric and rewarding.
Unfortunately there is not an infinite supply of these neurotransmitters. It takes time for the body to produce more and therefore when you use MDMA you run the risk of depleting your supply of neurotransmitters which are required for the normal day to day functioning of your body. This can leave you feeling exhausted and depressed and make it difficult to take pleasure in things that would normally make you feel good. It also means that repeated use of MDMA or other drugs that interact with these neurotransmitters such as cocaine or amphetamines will result in less return as the drugs will have no neurotransmitters to draw upon.
Seretonin is produced far less quickly that the other neurotransmitters, meaning that it takes longer for your body to replenish its reservoirs. Because of the serotonergic nature of MDMA this can mean that you can rapidly deplete your levels of serotonin.
Symptoms of low serotonin levels are:
- Difficulty focusing and concentrating
- The smallest task can seem like a chore
- Chronic fatigue
- Appetite/sleep disturbance
- Low libido
- Low to no self-esteem
- Social withdrawal
The longer term impacts of serotonin depletion in regards to MDMA use are not well understood at this time but many researchers believe that serotonin depletion could lead to longer term depression problems.