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The Neurobiology of Ecstasy (MDMA)

1: Short-term effects after ecstasy is gone from the body

Illustration of 3 synapses, showing normal, during ecstasy use and following use

Ecstasy is an unusual drug because it has effects on the brain that develop and persist for a short time after the drug is eliminated from the body. These often include the development of depression-like feelings, anxiety, restlessness, irritability, and sleep disturbances. These "after effects" occur because of a chemical change that takes place at the serotonin synapse. To illustrate how this occurs, this image shows the serotonin synapse during and after taking ecstasy. Three conditions are illustrated: on the left, neurons normally release serotonin in response to electrical impulses (basically the release is in "spurts"). This results in the normal activation of serotonin receptors, which keeps our psychological and physiological function on an even keel. So, for example, we have a normal mood and we are calm. In the middle, ecstasy causes a sustained increase in the amount of serotonin in the synaptic space, leading to sustained activation of more serotonin receptors. This can produce an elevated mood (or euphoria). Eventually, the serotonin neurons can't make serotonin fast enough to replace that which was lost, so once Ecstasy is gone from the body (on the right), less serotonin is released with each electrical impulse and fewer serotonin receptors are activated, producing depression-like feelings and anxiety. Another important effect that may emerge after taking ecstasy is memory disruption. (Ask students if they can figure out which area of the brain is affected here; the answer should include the cerebral cortex and the hippocampus). This is an adverse effect that may persist with repeated or long-term use of ecstasy. Indicate to students that there is some evidence for this obtained from human studies.

This page was last updated January 2007

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NIDA. (2007, January 4). The Neurobiology of Ecstasy (MDMA). Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/neurobiology-ecstasy-mdma

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