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Ecstasy no 'trivial' drug, experts warn



By Thurston Hatcher
CNN

(CNN) -- It may lower your inhibitions and give you an energy boost to help you dance all night. It may also damage your brain.

The drug's nickname suggests something lighthearted, but experts say Ecstasy is potent, potentially dangerous stuff.

"I think it's imperative that the word gets out that this is not a trivial substance," said Dr. Glen Hanson, director of the division of neuroscience and behavioral research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

"I still hear young people saying, 'Well, this isn't like cocaine, this isn't like methamphetamine, and if I only use a small amount it should be safe.' That's very foolish, because this drug has the potential to cause serious problems."

Ecstasy, also known as X, E, XTC, Adam or by its scientific name of MDMA, is a stimulant and not-so-distant relative of methamphetamine. It typically comes in pill or powder form.

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Although it has gained recent notoriety on the rave dance circuit, Ecstasy is nothing new. It was created almost 70 years ago as a possible appetite suppressant, and psychotherapists used it until potentially damaging side effects became more evident.

What are they?

Psychological effects can include confusion, depression, anxiety, sleeplessness and paranoia. Then there are the physical effects, which may include increased heart rate and blood pressure, tremors, nausea, blurred vision, rapid eye movement and sweating or chills.

At raves, Ecstasy's stimulant qualities can help a user dance for hours. But the heat and crowds can also cause dehydration, unusually high body temperature and heart or kidney failure.

Research also suggests Ecstasy affects the body's production of serotonin, which plays a role in mood, sleep and appetite.

"It's what Ecstasy does to serotonin levels that concerns us most right now," Dr. Alan Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said Monday at a Senate committee hearing on Ecstasy.

A recent survey of hospital emergency rooms in 21 cities showed there were 4,511 visits related to Ecstasy in 2000, a 58 percent increase over the previous year. Several deaths also have been attributed to Ecstasy use.

The long-term effects of Ecstasy on humans aren't entirely clear, but one study of primates showed that four-day exposure caused brain damage that could be detected more than six years later.

"About all we'll be able to do is retroactive studies on humans, in nine or 10 years, looking back at this crop of teen-agers who've been using Ecstasy and assessing if damage has been done to their brains," Hanson said.






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