Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
Christie was shy and socially awkward
, like many students attending the University of Chicago, an institution known for its intellectual rigor and bleak, endless winters. She often complained to me how boring her weekends were -- mostly studying or renting movies with friends -- how she longed for new experiences but was too self-conscious to go find them.
Then Christie discovered Ecstasy
and the rave scene and she became a completely different person. Now she was able to laugh at herself and take risks for the fun of it. Intrigued by Christie's new-found self-confidence, I even agreed to go to some raves with her and meet all her new friends, though I was too chicken to try Ecstasy. I longed to have the same sort of social grace that Christie had apparently found through Ecstasy but I didn't want to risk the one thing I valued above all: my brain. Yet I had to admit it didn't seem to be hurting Christie's brain, more like Ecstasy improved it.
The same month I started going to raves I also began my new job as an undergraduate helper at a neurotoxicology lab. Coincidently enough one of the substances I was now going to study was Ecstasy. Known in the scientific world as MDMA, Ecstasy had long been known to cause euphoria by inhibiting the uptake of serotonin and, to lesser extent, dopamine and norepinephrine, but its potential toxicity was still under contention. The head of my new lab, Dr. Lewis Seiden, and his protégé, George Ricaurte, were the top researchers in the field of MDMA neurotoxicology. I felt excited to be working in such a highly-esteemed lab: now I could discover for myself whether or not Ecstasy was harmful.
And so during the week I gave Ecstasy to rats and watched them scamper about joyously as floods of serotonin spread throughout their brains. Then on the weekends I got to watch college students dancing about gleefully as Ecstasy filled them with a happiness that didn't seem attainable from normal life experiences.
The first thing I learned was that happiness from Ecstasy always means suffering later on. The drug--induced flood of serotonin lasts for only a few hours. Then there is a steady depletion of serotonin
for about a day after ingestion, and a decrease of tryptophan
hydroxylase, the enzyme which synthesizes serotonin. Because of this, serotonin levels stay low for at least few days after ingestion, and after repeated doses, for a few months. In fact, the nerve fibers that bring serotonin to the farthest reaches of the brain become damaged and eventually wither after constant Ecstasy use. This loss of serotonin is the reason why chronic users get the "Monday Blues" after a weekend of drug taking. Although serotonin levels can rise back to the same levels after a year or so, the psychological effects of prolonged Ecstasy use are often still present: recurrent anxiety and sometimes full-blown depression.
Over the course of one semester at the Seiden lab, I learned how bad Ecstasy could be to our rats and presumably to humans. I became more and more relieved that I hadn't tried Ecstasy, especially after I noticed that Christie seemed more and more down, even when she cut back on her rave-going. I tried to tell her about the damage she could be doing to herself but she shrugged it off: "It's just rats that you're looking at. You don't know what it does to people."
Then it was discovered that the damage done to the serotonin system by Ecstasy could be blocked by taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, otherwise known as SSRI's. And I just happened to have a supply of Prozac
, one of the better-known SSRI's. My doctor father often brought prescription drugs that had been returned to him by patients and (as a joke) I had smuggled a bottle of Prozac back to college with me. I decided to try to help Christie by getting her to take a few pills of Prozac before she did Ecstasy.
But she refused to go along. "What if it ruins the high for me? It's not worth it." she argued. In my exasperation I told her that I would try Ecstasy along with Prozac just to prove to her that the drug-induced euphoria wouldn't be compromised. And so I took my first-ever capsule of Ecstasy and a yellow and green pill of Prozac and waited. After a while I started to feel a light-headed and energized. "It's working!" I told her excitedly.
We went out onto the dance floor and could feel my heart thumping faster and faster, but I didn't feel ecstatic like the way everyone else was. I didn't swoon to the techno music or get overwhelmed by sensations of love and connectedness. I knew those kinds of sensations were supposed to be part of the Ecstasy experience and yet I was just feeling jittery. I started to realize that I was feeling effects from the dopamine
and norepinephrine released by Ecstasy but without the serotonin surge. It was a somewhat odd feeling knowing all about the chemicals working inside your head and what each one was probably doing to my body and mood. I was forced to tell Christie that I was not getting the full high. But she didn't act very triumphant. Actually, she seemed pretty disappointed.
Later on I met a girl who was taking Prozac and also a rave-goer. She confirmed that Prozac made an Ecstasy high feel different. Not worthless, she said, but different.
There is, in fact, a list of neuro-protective substances such as antioxidants and antibiotics, which alleviate serotonin damage from Ecstasy and probably have minimal effect on the high. For instance, minocycline, a tetracycline derivative, prevents loss of dopamine and serotonin after Ecstasy use. And tryptophan, the precursor of serotonin found in many types of foods, also seems to assuage serotonin depletion. However, none of these neuroprotective substances, including Prozac, are widely known about in the rave culture, although there is awareness that a dangerous side effect of Ecstasy, increased body temperature or hyperthermia, can be avoided by drinking water and staying cool
After a while Christie stopped going to raves completely and resumed her old quiet, more reticent personality. She did seem a lot more moody than she used to be or perhaps I just noticed it more. She once told me she believed her Ecstasy experiences were worth whatever changes the drugs may have wrought on her brain.
It's been ten years since I graduated from college, and yet there is a still deeply rooted controversy over the alleged neurotoxicity of Ecstasy. The Journal of Psychopharmacology
recently devoted an entire issue to this subject and still no real conclusions were made on whether Ecstasy causes long-term memory loss or unipolar depression. Some scientists speculate that the real effects of a few years of chronic Ecstasy use will only become apparent during old age, when risk for depression, memory problems and mood disorders rises precipitately.
I gained only a little from my Ecstasy experience and yet I lost very little, while Christie gained and lost much more, though she won't admit it. So it seems, deep down inside, any person who uses Ecstasy knows what they've gained -- and what they stand to lose.