Essay: MDMA

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  • Published: 7 October 2015*
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MDMA can be consumed in 3 different forms: a powder, a pill (XTC) and in crystal form. MDMA has two major effects, a stimulating effect and an entactogen effect. The entactogen effects causes the user to feel good, euphoric and relaxed, talking gets easier and you desire intimacy with others. The setting where the user consumes MDMA makes a great difference in it’s effects. When for instance taking at home with a friend the entactogen effect would cause a lot of talking, hugging and relaxing. Whereas MDMA consumed at a party in a big club causes the user to hear the music better, enjoying the music more, enjoying the light effects, feeling your body tingling, feeling like dancing and moving all the time and so on. The stimulating effect causes a feeling of alertness, tiredness vanishes, massive increase in energy, activeness. The physical effects from the amphetamine are a rise in body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure, widening of pupils and tightening of muscles which can cause jaw clenching. The combination of the entactogen and ‘speedy’ effects is why this drug has originally been taken, and still is, to dance and love at parties all night long.
2.2 Short and long term effects
A couple of days after taking MDMA some users undergo a so-called ‘Dinsdag-dip’. Users feel empty, tired, depressed and useless. This is because the serotonin level in the brain drops massively a few days after taking MDMA which releases a high level of serotonin in the brain when MDMA is consumed. The only proven long term effect for people who consume a low dosis of XTC (+- 6 pills in total in whole life) is a slightly less blood flow in some parts of the brain. Also there is a difference between non-users and low dosis users score on a memory test where participants have to memorise a serie of words. The low dosis users scory slightly lower on these test but the difference is minimal. With heavy users the average score on these memory test is lower compared to the non users. Furthermore the nerve ends of the serotonin-nerves are damaged. However, it is still unknown if this damage is permanent.
3 Dangers
The far most dangerous thing when consuming a XTC-pill is the lack of knowledge on the substances it contains. PMMA is good example, it is a substance with a chemical structure very similar to MDMA. But PMMA can cause heart and liver failure and the effects (entactogen and stimulating) are very similar to MDMA as well but these effects start multiple hours after taking a pill insteads of 20 to 90 minutes. Therefor users often take another pill because they think then took a MDMA dose too low to feel anything. Which makes the change of overheating (body temperature above 41 degrees Celcius) far more likely. Overheating can cause organs to stop functioning and conclude into death. MDMA cause the body temperature to rise and therefore can also cause overheating but the change this happens is very small. To prevent this it is recommended to drink a glass of water every hour and take a dance break every now and again to cool off. However to much water can also cause trouble. MDMA causes the kidneys to hand over less water to the urine as they normally would. When drinking too much water (> 2 glasses every hour) the body can not cope with the excess of water. This induces the amount of blood to grow and a reduction of the amount of natrium in the blood. When the amount of natrium in the blood is too low water can enter the brain cells through the blood which can cause brain oedema and can result into death. Also there are some small dangers like damaging the denture through possible jaw clenching.
4 Manufacturing
MDMA is rarely manufactured by actual chemists. Most of the XTC-labs in the Netherlands are situated in farm houses on the countryside. Barns are filled up with numerous toxic substances and often pretty good chemical equipment. These dutch drug barns have dominated the XTC produce around the world for many years. Only four years ago Canada overruled the dutch XTC produce. Of course there are also smaller labs with a lot less quality equipment. These so called basement labs are often situated in urban areas instead of the drug barn which are situated in rural areas. These basement labs often produce lower quality pills (less mg MDMA).
Chapter 3: What happens in the brain when consuming MDMA’1 How does MDMA travel to our brain?
MDMA is mostly consumed orally in a XTC pill form or in a ‘bomb’ which is a thin smoking paper filled with MDMA powder or crystals and then rolled up like bang snaps. Through the stomach the MDMA reaches the small intestine where the MDMA is absorbed in the blood. Firstly, the blood transports the MDMA to the liver. Inside the liver a part of the MDMA is depleted. Afterward the blood goes to the hearth which then pumps the blood to lungs and the rest of the organs including the brain. Inside the brain MDMA causes the brain cells to secrete the substances adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin. Adrenaline and dopamine are regular substances which are secreted by the brain after taking an amphetamine. They cause the ‘speedy’ effect. Serotonin makes you feel good and relaxed, the ‘loving’ effect. The hearth keeps on pumping the blood which passes all organs including the liver multiple times. Every time the blood (containing the MDMA) passes the liver a part of the MDMA is depleted. The blood also passes the kidneys which filter the waste from the blood whereupon they are excreted by urine. Usually MDMA is not detectable anymore in the urine two or three days after taking MDMA.
2 What happens inside our brain?
2.1 Serotonin
The brain contains billions of cells, they consist of a cell body, dendrites, axon and axon terminals. The cell body stores DNA and other stuff. Dendrites receive signals from other cells and the axon carries signals from the cell body to the axon terminals. Axons terminal contain neurotransmitters which serve to communicate with other cells. Some cells just contain one type of neurotransmitter, serotonin cells release their serotonin into the synapse. This is the gap between their axon terminals and the dendrites of another cell. Serotonin is involved with regulation of your mood, heart rate, sleep and appetite. MDMA causes cells to release large amounts of serotonin, these large amounts are responsible for the primary effects of MDMA such as euphoria, empathy and the urge to communicate. Side effects are increased heart rate, trouble sleeping and loss of appetite. Serotonin is stored in vesicles, they float around inside the axon terminals. When a signal comes down the axon, the vesicles merge with the membrane and release serotonin into the synapse. Released serotonin can enter a different cell through receptors that are attached to a membrane of dendrites. When serotonin attaches to such a receptor, the receptor sends information to the cell body. Based on the information from all the receptors together, the cell body will decide whether or not to send a signal down it’s own axon. When it does send a signal, more serotonin gets released into more synapses. After a while the serotonin will detach from the receptor and float back into the synapse. Serotonin can also bind to reuptake transporters. Reuptake transporters work as revolving door. After the serotonin enters, the transporters spins around and pushes serotonin back into the axon terminal. Some serotonin makes it’s way back into the vesicles, but some of it gets broken down by an enzyme called MAO (mono-amine oxidase). After 4-6 hours most of the serotonin is used up and the used should start to feel ‘normal’ again. The brain however needs some time to refill these serotonin levels and this may take about two weeks. MDMA causes the release of serotonin by entering the axon terminal through the reuptake transporters. Once there it interacts with the vesicle causing it to force serotonin into the synapse.
2.2 Dopamine & Adrenaline
Serotonin is the most excessive effect of MDMA but also some dopamine and adrenaline are released. Dopamine and adrenaline are stored in vesicles at the tip of an axon. When an electric signal arrives there, the vesicles fuse to the wall of the neuron. This releases the dopamine or adrenaline into the space (synapse) between two neurons. The dopamine or adrenaline now moves across the synapse to the adjacent neuron. The dendrites of that neuron contain receptors to which the dopamine or adrenaline can bind. This binding action relays the message further.
Once the message has been transmitted, the dopamine or adrenaline unbinds from the receptor, and is then broken down by MAOs or absorbed by reuptake proteins. These guide the neurotransmitters from the synaptic cleft back into the original axon terminal. The neurotransmitters are recycled, as it were. Amphetamines (also MDMA) alters these normal conditions in three ways. Firstly, the amphetamine arrives in the brain via the blood. It penetrates into dopamine or adrenaline neurons with the aid of reuptake proteins. In the axon terminal, the amphetamine causes the neurotransmitter vesicles to release all of their adrenaline or dopamine. These transmitters then move across the synapse to the receptors on the next cell, relaying the signal further. Secondly, the dopamine or adrenaline would normally be guided back into the axon by the reuptake proteins. Amphetamine blocks this process. Thirdly, the dopamine or adrenaline would normally be broken down by MAOs. Amphetamine also blocks this process.
For these three reasons, large amounts of dopamine and adrenaline remain in the synapses, continuously transmitting signals that can arouse pleasure and euphoria and make you feel energetic.
3 The reward system and addiction
Even though MDMA does not release enough dopamine to damage the dopamine receptors, also after structural use, almost all other amphetamines do. For that reason the reward system is briefly discussed. The reward system is the neural network involved in feeling pleasure. It’s also centrally involved in learning and motivation. The primary neurotransmitter in the reward system is dopamine. If enough dopamine is released into the brain’s reward circuits, euphoria results. Dopamine stimulates the reward system in the brain which makes you feel happy, satisfied and feel luck. Dopamine is situated in the brain areas which are concerned with thought processes, the memory and movements. Amphetamines work strongly on our reward system through the massive release of dopamine. If only used once in a while the brain’s corrective system restores proper balance once the drug wears off. However, through frequent use of amphetamines the amount of dopamine receptors decreases. As a result the amount of amphetamine taken has to increases to be able to feel the same desired effect. Which eventually leads to an addiction.
Chapter 4: How is the amount of MDMA determined in one XTC-pill’1 The ‘sneltest’
There are several ways to determine if MDMA is present in an unknown tablet. By far the fastest way to test if a unknown tablet contains MDMA and to make an assumption about how strong the tablet is, strong meaning how much mg MDMA is present is using a Marquis reagent. Therefor a lot of institutions like DanceSafe and Jellinek use this way of testing. The Marquis reagent is a spot test for alkaloids that was first reported in 1896. The original testing agent was a mixture of 2 drops of 40% formaldehyde and 3 milliliters of concentrated sulfuric acid. For instance, Jellinek now uses a Marquis reactant consisting of 10 mL 350 mg/ G formaldehyde and 90 mL 94-96% M/M sulfuric acid (H2SO4). It was (CH2O) originally used for detecting small amounts of certain alkaloids, and for distinguishing between them. The signature of the alkaloid is both the initial colour produced, as well as the sequence of colour changes occurring with time. In the early days the Marquis reagent was used primarily to distinguish the opium alkaloids. Each alkaloid had a pattern of colour change. MDMA turn purple to black in 0-5 seconds after adding some Marquis reagent to a tiny bit of scraped off powder from an unknown tablet which I try out as well at the Jellinek Drugtestservice department. The pill of which I scraped the powder and added the Marquis reagent turned dark black within a second. Meaning that the pill does contain MDMA but also that the amount of MDMA is considerably high. The pill was also send off to the DSM lab for further testing. When I get the results back (January 9) I can see if the results from the ‘sneltest’ indeed reconcile with the lab results from DSM. There are of course some negative aspects of the ‘sneltest’. Mainly that you only have a vague indication of how strong a pill is. Furthermore the Marquis reagent does not show if a pill also contains other dangerous substances like PMMA. To find out if pills do contain other substances than MDMA they have to be send off to a lab for further testing. Methods that can be used for this are for instance: High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), Isotope Ratio Mass Spectronomy (IRMS), Gas Chromatography-Mass Chromatography (GS-MS), Liquid Chromatography with Mass Spectronomy (LC-MC) and Thin Layer Chromatography (TLC).
2 High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC)
High-Performance Liquid Chromatography is more advanced, faster highly highly automated and extremely sensitive form of column chromatography. Instead of a substance being allowed to drip through a column under gravity, it is forced through under high pressures of up to 400 atmospheres. This makes it much faster. Smaller particle can be used for the column packing material which gives a much greater surface area for interactions between the stationary phase and the molecules flowing past it. This allows a much better separation of the components of the mixture. There are 2 different ways of using the HPLC depending on the relative polarity of the solvent and the stationary phase. The ‘normal’ and the ‘reversed’ phase. The ‘normal’ phase is not -eventhough it’s name suggests so- the most commonly used phase. This method is very similar to TLC which will be discussed later on. The column is filled with tiny silica particles, the solvent is non-polar i.e. hexane. A typical column has an internal diameter of 4.6 mm (and may be less than that), and a length of 150 to 250 mm. The polar compounds will stick longer to the polar silica compared to the non-polar compounds. So, the non-polar compounds will go faster through the column. In the ‘reversed’ phase the column size is the same but the silica is modified to make it non-polar. A polar solvent that can be used would be i.e. methanol. There will be a strong attraction between the polar solvent and molecules passing through the column. The hydrocarbon chains attached to the silica and the polar molecules will not undergo as much attraction. Therefor, the polar molecules will spend most of their time moving with the solvent. Thanks to the van der Waals force, the non-polar compounds will attract with the hydrocarbon group. This slows them down while passing the column. So now, the polar molecules will travel through the column more quickly. The whole process: Injecting the sample goes entirely automated. The time it takes a substance to go through the column to the detector is called the retention time. This is measured from when the sample is injected to when the screen shows a maximum peak. A substance can be identified using the retention time. Every substance has a different retention time which will vary depending on the pressure used, the nature of the stationary phase, the extract composition of the solvent and the temperature of the column. There are multiple ways of detecting when a substances passes through the column. The most used one is UV-absorption. ‘Many organic compounds absorb UV light of various wavelengths. If you have a beam of UV light shining through the stream of liquid coming out of the column, and a UV detector on the opposite side of the stream, you can get a direct reading of how much of the light is absorbed. The amount of light absorbed will depend on the amount of a particular compound that is passing through the beam at the time.’

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