The popular party drug MDMA, popularly known as "Ecstasy" or "Molly," can be deadly when taken in conditions that mimic the hot, crowded, social settings where the drug is often used, according to a new National Institutes of Health study.
The study, being published in the Journal of Neuroscience, was conducted by researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Intramural Research Program (NIDA IRP) using rats, but the researchers say the findings could also apply to humans.
While MDMA can have a range of adverse health effects, previous studies have shown that high doses of MDMA increase body temperature, while results with moderate doses were inconsistent. This has led some people to assume that the drug is harmless if taken in moderation.
However, this study shows that in rats even moderate doses of MDMA in certain environments can be dangerous because it interferes with the body’s ability to regulate temperature.
“We know that high doses of MDMA can sharply increase body temperature to potentially lead to organ failure or even death,” said NIDA Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow. “However, this current study opens the possibility that even moderate doses could be deadly in certain conditions.”
It is impossible to predict who will have an adverse reaction even to a low dose of MDMA. However, in this study scientists gave the rats low to moderate doses that have been shown in past studies to not be fatal. They monitored the rats to determine drug-induced changes in brain and body temperature and in the body’s ability to cool itself through blood vessel dilation.
When rats were alone and in a room-temperature environment, a moderate dose of MDMA modestly increased brain and body temperature and moderately diminished the rats’ ability to eliminate excessive heat. However, when researchers injected the same dose in rats that were either in a warmer environment or in the presence of another rat in the cage, brain temperature increased, causing death in some rats. These fatal temperature increases were because the drug interfered with the body’s ability to eliminate heat.
“These results demonstrate that the use of MDMA in certain warm, social settings could be more dangerous than commonly believed,” said Dr. Eugene Kiyatkin, first author on the study and NIDA IRP scientist. “Even with moderate doses, we saw drug-induced, fatal brain hyperthermia during conditions of social interaction and in warm environments.”