Hopkins study finds little to love in ecstasy

by Judith Phillips | 10/11/02 5:00am

X -- It rhymes with sex. And In 2000, 9.1 percent of college students took the former in order to increase the intensity of the latter.

Yet a recent study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins has found that ecstasy -- a recreational drug known scientifically as 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA -- has more negative than positive effects on sexual pleasure.

The study found that "doses similar to those that young adults typically take during all-night dance parties" has the potential to damage 60 percent to 80 percent of the brain's dopamine nerve endings.

Dopamine is integral to movement, emotional and cognitive response and the ability to feel pleasure.

The study, funded by the U.S. Public Health Service and published in the Sept. 27 issue of Science, is cited by co-author Una McCann as the first to focus on the dopamine neurons.

Critics of the study say that it over-represents the negative effects of ecstasy. They contend that the dosage level and method of administration caused the damage to be more extensive than it would be if taken orally in capsule form, as it often is.

But McCann said the study's methods closely resemble actual ecstasy use.

"The amount administered is intended to parallel the human use pattern at raves," she said.

That typical dose of ecstasy taken by recreational users ranges from 50 to 300 mg, said Anna Meyerrose, a substance abuse counselor and instructor in psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School. The variation is due to the amount of other narcotics that the capsule contains, such as cocaine.

McCann cited four studies which contrasted oral ingestion of the drug with the method used by the researchers.

"One study found that there was absolutely no difference. Another found that orally there is slightly less toxicity, but the toxicity is still there. When you take the lower doses into consideration, the 60 to 80 percent damage is still there," McCann said.

MDMA "burns out your neurons that make you feel so good," Meyerrose said.

The loss of 90 percent of the brain's dopamine neurons can cause Parkinsonism, a variant of Parkinson's disease, the study's authors note. Since dopamine cells die naturally as the brain ages, ecstasy could severely increase one's risk of acquiring the disease.

Immediate effects of the drug can include hypothermia and occasionally even death. Some long term effects include chronic depression and anxiety disorders.

"This drug is not a safe drug. No matter how you take it," McCann stressed.

Yet despite ecstasy's dangerous effects, the drug holds appeal for millions of Americans, including Dartmouth students. As a female '03 said, "I'm scared to take it, but I really want to."

A female '04 voiced a similar attitude: "It's really dangerous, but I've never known anyone to have any trouble with it, and I've known a ton of people who have tried it. It's college, after these years we have to grow up and can't get messed up like we do. I also don't think there's anything wrong with experimentation, as long as you don't turn into an addict."

Yet an '02 male offered a different perspective: "Yeah, I've done it, but I don't ever think I'd do it again. I think ecstasy's really bad for you."

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