Julie Holland, M.D.
The only way to remove spinal fluid from the body is with a surgical intervention called a lumbar puncture, better known as a spinal tap. In the mid-1980s, ongoing research required spinal taps on Ecstasy users. It is possible that this rumor began because of this practice. MDMA research may drain your spinal fluid, but recreational Ecstasy use does not.
Ecstasy Causes Parkinson's Disease
Parkinson's disease is a neurological illness that affects one's ability to move fluidly and causes a tremor when a person is sitting still. Its cause is unknown, but its effects are damaged dopamine neurons in a part of the brain known as the substantia nigra. MDMA does not damage dopamine neurons in any part of the brain, and Ecstasy use does not cause Parkinson's disease. In 1983, intravenous drug users, believing they were purchasing a form of heroin called China White, inadvertently injected MPTP (l-methyl-4-phenyl-l,2,5,6-tetrahydropyridine) into their veins.
Designer meperidine (Demerol) is sold as MPPP (l-methyl-4-phenyl-4-propionpiperidine). Specific conditions are required for the chemical reaction to produce MPPP. In the event of incorrect synthesis, where the pH is too low or the temperature is too high, a contaminant, MPTP, is formed. MPTP damages dopamine neurons. These intravenous drug users were left with a severe Parkinson's-like syndrome. Because MPTP and Ecstasy were
popular in the media at the same time (the summer of 1985), many TV programs ran shows on so-called designer drugs that featured videos of the immobilized MPTP victims as well as segments about Ecstasy. These two stories became forever linked in the minds of many Americans.
A Single Dose of Ecstasy Causes Irreversible Brain Damage
Like all potent medicines, MDMA has a recommended dose and a toxic dose. No evidence exists that a single therapeutic dose of MDMA (roughly 125 mg) causes any damage to the nervous system. The widely publicized animal studies concerning brain damage involved repeated high-dose injections, given twice daily for four days. The changes reported do not involve the cell body but rather the tail, or axon terminals, of the nerves. Giving MDMA to test animals at lower temperatures has been shown to minimize these changes. Animal studies show that single oral doses, 2.5 mg/kg body weight, given every two weeks on four occasions to squirrel monkeys yielded no adverse effects on brain structure. One study that used a single oral dose of 5 mg/kg did cause some axonal damage in baboons. The equivalent dose in humans would be much larger than the therapeutic dose used for psychotherapy.
MDMA Was Initially Marketed as an Appetite Suppressant
MDMA was created in a laboratory in the early 1900s; a patent application was filed by Merck in 1912 and granted in 1914. Merck stumbled across MDMA when the company tried to synthesize hydrastinin, a vasoconstrictive and styptic medicine. MDMA was merely an unplanned by-product of this synthesis. The entire synthesis was patented, including intermediary products. No mention is made in the patent of using MDMA as an appetite suppressant (Beck 1997). No clinical trials were performed at that time, and MDMA was never marketed. Also, it is reasonable to assume that there was little need for an appetite suppressant in the early 1900s. The source of the confusion is clear: MDA, the analog and metabolite of MDMA, was patented by Smith Kline French and tested in 1958 on 180 human subjects as an anorectic. The medicine was abandoned due to its psychoactive side effects.
Ecstasy Is an Aphrodisiac
While MDMA can enhance communication and feelings of closeness between lovers, its physical effects tend to make erections and orgasm more
difficult to achieve in most users. Some users do find that MDMA can enhance their appreciation of touch and movement, called kinesthetic awareness. This may be one reason why Ecstasy use is so popular in dance clubs and has earned the nickname the "hug drug."
The American media has a habit of labeling most new drugs as "date rape" drugs, perhaps to instill fear in the minds of news watchers. A date rape drug is one that renders the drug taker unconscious and therefore vulnerable to attack. Although some people may lose their inhibitions with MDMA or may feel a novel closeness to another person, MDMA does not cause a clouding of consciousness; it is not a sedative. In therapeutic doses, MDMA enhances attention and concentration. There is typically full retention of the events experienced under the influence of MDMA.
Because MDMA is illegal and there is no government-regulated quality control, tablets sold as Ecstasy vary tremendously in content. Many street sample analyses have been performed by harm reduction groups, results of which are often available on the Internet [see www.DanceSafe.org]. While it is common for some pills to contain methamphetamine (speed) or MDE (methylenedioxyethylamphetamine [Eve, a chemical cousin to MDMA]), the impurities more often are caffeine, dextromethorphan (cough suppressant), or decongestants. No survey has ever yielded heroin as an adulterant in an Ecstasy pill. It would not be cost-effective for pill manufacturers to use heroin in their pills, nor would the effects of heroin mimic the effects of MDMA as closely as the other additives.
MTV ran a story of a woman with manic-depressive illness who had a history of polydrug abuse. During the program, they showed a three-dimensional image of her SPECT scan (single positron emission computed tomography), which is a measurement of blood flow in the brain. The areas of lower blood flow were displayed as blank spaces, while the areas of normal blood flow were shown as brain tissue. This method of displaying SPECT results is misleading, because the areas of low flow look like patches of missing tissue. MDMA does not destroy large areas of brain tissue. It does not cause neuronal cell death. Charles Grob has shown, via SPECT scans, that single doses of MDMA do cause decreased brain blood flow in certain areas, but this was not shown to be permanent [see "Clinical MDMA Research: A Worldwide Review" for more detail].
There is simply no scientific basis for this rumor. Cartilage does not grow in the brain under any circumstance. I have been unable to discover the source of this rumor.
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