Nontoxic Doses of Party Drug Ecstasy Become Fatal in Warm Conditions

An animal study suggests that using MDMA under social conditions in warm environments may amplify its effect on body temperature. Image: ©

Environmental conditions in settings where the illicit drug ecstasy is commonly used may exacerbate adverse effects of the drug. Image: ©

A combination of warmer ambient temperatures and social interaction may cause normally nontoxic doses of the recreational drug commonly known as ecstasy or Molly to become fatal, suggests findings from an animal study. The study, published today in the Journal of Neuroscience, may help explain how the drug, 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA), causes fatal hyperthermia in some individuals and suggests strategies for treating this serious adverse effect.

A party drug at clubs and impromptu warehouse parties, MDMA has a reputation among users as being safer than other illicit drugs. The drug triggers feelings of euphoria and friendliness. It is responsible for fewer emergency department visits than other illicit substances, including marijuana, and is being studied as a potential treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder and anxiety.

However, the drug has been linked to fatal cases of heat stroke, and previous studies had suggested that consuming the drug under the hot temperatures often found in party settings may exacerbate the drug’s effect on body temperature.

The latest study suggests that elevated room temperatures combined with social interactions may turn nontoxic doses of the drug into fatal ones. Researchers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse implanted heat sensors in the brain, muscle tissue, and skin of rats and gave the animals a moderate dose of MDMA comparable with doses used recreationally. The researchers found that at normal room temperatures, the brain temperatures of animals given the nontoxic doses of MDMA showed very little effect but deleterious effects dramatically increased when the animals were exposed to temperatures exceeding 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Rats given the usually nontoxic MDMA dose died within 6 hours in a warm environment.

The researchers found that increased narrowing of the blood vessels, which prevented  efficient heat loss, likely played a role in exaggerating the drug’s effects.

The researchers argue that the environmental conditions under which MDMA is used recreationally may dangerously exacerbate its effects on body temperature. According to the authors, the findings also suggest that medical interventions aimed at reducing constriction of the blood vessels may help to counteract MDMA-induced heat stroke.

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