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Why do MDMA users ‘connect’ with others when they use the drug?

“How come human beings bond while ‘rolling’ on MDMA? I was with some friends a few weeks back and while rolling, I connected deeply with someone I usually don’t talk to. It’s a strange feeling to have such a connection after a trip.”

Experiencing a deep connection with someone when taking MDMA (ecstasy) is not unusual. Users of the drug often describe a combination of feeling energetic and yet calm, as well as an enhanced sense of closeness with other people. The usual social defences are weakened and communicating with strangers is no longer taboo. These effects have been recognised for a long time – both on the dance floor and in therapeutic settings.

Alexander Shulgin, an American research chemist, experimented with MDMA in the 1960s and found it produced ’emotional openness’ and empathy and made those using the drug feel in tune with each other and facilitated communication. As a result, a handful of psychotherapists used the drug in couple’s therapy and as a means to help address post-traumatic stress disorders during the 1970s in the US. During the last decade, research into how MDMA and its unique effects could potentially be used therapeutically has been renewed. Clinically-controlled studies in the US and Switzerland continue to be carried out, particularly in relation to the treatment of PTSD.

So how does MDMA cause this effect?

There’s no straightforward answer but most experts agree that MDMA works by increasing levels of dopamine and oxytocin in the brain, which affect emotions, empathy and pleasure. At the same time, MDMA ‘tricks’ the brain into releasing serotonin (the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter) and then also prevents it from being re-absorbed. As a result, the level of serotonin in the synapse – a part of the brain that allows information from one neuron to flow to another neuron – increases, producing the ‘loved-up’ euphoria associated with MDMA.

Some experts, however, are sceptical about serotonin explaining this unique effect. Other drugs, including pharmaceutical products, cause a big release of serotonin but they don’t cause anything like the euphoric effect of MDMA. We still have a lot to learn about this drug.

Please remember, using MDMA does involve risk. The main reasons why it can cause problems or even deaths are as follows:

  • adulterants – drugs sold as ecstasy may contain little or no MDMA. Ecstasy may contain other substances some of which
    may be more harmful than MDMA
  • heatstroke – using the drug in a hot environment (like a nightclub) can cause body temperature to dangerous levels, which can result in death
  • water intoxication – MDMA affects the kidneys, preventing the body from getting rid of fluids. Water is retained in the body and the pressure can lead to coma and death  
  • heart failure – the stimulant effects of MDMA have caused death in vulnerable users, particularly those with undiagnosed
    heart problems
  • MDMA overdose – the increase in the strength of ecstasy may have caused fatal overdoses among some users i.e., the ‘dose’ taken is ‘over’ the safe amount

All drugs, whether they be legal, illegal or pharmaceutical, are potentially dangerous. Things can, and do, go wrong – no matter what the substance. Although taking MDMA can lead to some positive effects for many users (such as the feelings of being ‘connected’ to others), there are risks those people thinking about taking the drug also need to consider.

First published: January 2018

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