Physiological Effects: Ecstasy


Ecstasy, also called MDMA (short for 3,4 methylenedioxy methamphetamine), is a synthetic, psychoactive drug that also has similar affects of methamphetamines. It is consumed for its euphoric and emphathogenic effects, and users experience feelings of warmth, love, and elation. It is often taken orally in the form of tablets, but it can also be inhaled, injected, and snorted. Ecstasy is illegal in most countries.



Ecstasy primarily affects serotonin pathways, which is located from the raphe nucleus (in the brain stem area) to the neocortex and limbic system; it then travels down the spinal cord. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter contributes to feelings of happiness, and when there is not enough serotonin in the brain and body, one may experience the opposite, i.e depression. The serotonin pathway is responsible for mood regulation. Within the neurons in the brain, ecstasy works primarily on those that release serotonin. It works by mimicking the serotonin neurotransmitter and binding to serotonin transporters on the cell that are responsible for reabsorbing serotonin back into the neuron. This causes the neuron to both release more serotonin and keep it in the synapse between two neurons longer. This allows for many other neurons to be activated by serotonin, therefore causing more serotonin to be present throughout the brain and its affects to be heightened and intensified.

Ecstasy Impacted Pathways thumbnail_brain areas affected by ecstasy

It has similar affects on the dopamine system; specifically, it inhibits dopamine transmissions and causes an increase in dopamine levels in the synapse. Ecstasy affects cognition, mood, and memory. It can cause anxiety and altered perceptions and cause feelings of warmth and empathy. The parts of the brain that are primarily affected by ecstasy are: the neocortex (cognition, memory, altered perceptions) and the limbic system, i.e. the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and basal ganglia (mood, emotions, memory, production of anxiety). Ecstasy affects dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin pathways.



As shown in a study using rats, after being exposed to MDMA (Ecstasy) once, the number of degenerating axons in the thalamus increased. Because the thalamus is important for neurocognitive processes, it can be speculated that damage to the thalamus from ecstasy use is responsible for “decreased verbal memory performance frequently reported in heavy ecstasy users.” Ecstasy affects white matter maturation, causing it to be decreased and abnormal. Ecstasy users showed decreased activation in the inferior temporal region and angular gyrus. Increased activation in the right parietal and left parietal cortex were also found.



Ecstasy affects body temperature by way of the hypothalamus, which controls homeostasis in the body. Specifically, ecstasy has been found to increase body temperature between .4Short Term Affects of Ecstasy and .7 degrees Celsius. Ecstasy may cause nausea, muscle cramping, involuntary teeth clenching, chills, blurred vision, and sweating. In the week following moderate use of ecstasy, one may experience sleep problems, decreased appetite, irritability, depression, memory and attention problems, and anxiety.

These effects can be thought of as opposites of the immediate effects of ecstasy. Immediately, the user feels elation and love, attributed to its effects on the serotonin pathways, but after coming down from the high, he or she may feel depression, irritability, and anxiety. This may occur as counter products of the effects ecstasy causes in various brain regions. The hypothalamus is affected by ecstasy, and may be responsible for the subsequent decreased appetite, sleep problems, etc. The serotonin pathways are affected by ecstasy and immediately cause love and elation, but later cause the opposite- depression, irritability, and anxiety. Ecstasy also affects the hippocampus, which has a role in memory and may therefore be responsible for memory issues after taking ecstasy.




It has been demonstrated in mice that ecstasy improves fear extinction and acts directly on the brain structures that are necessary for extinction learning, most notably the amygdala and the hippocampus. Inserting ecstasy into the basolateral amygdala reduced the conditioned fear response of freezing in rats. Fear extinction using ecstasy also coincided with increased neuronal activity in certain areas of the amygdala.


Written and Research Conducted by: Brianna Knowlton