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Monday, January 18, 2010

MDMA – Pt 2, Neuroscience

Disclaimer: Information presented is not meant to replace the advice of a physician. Information presented on this website are for informational purposes only. Please consult a physician with any questions or concerns relating to your health.

MDMA’s full name is Methylenedioxymethamphetamine. The MA in MDMA stands for methamphetamine; however, the neurological variances between MDMA and methamphetamine are relatively large. MDMA is derived from an oil of the sassafras plant called safrole. These oils in the plant are so concentrated that even a relatively small amount can be synthesized to create a large quantity of doses, numbering in the hundreds, or even thousands.

To understand how ecstasy works you need to understand how a neurotransmitter such as serotonin is released. Think of a neuron in your brain like a television, with thousands of channels. The television is plugged into the wall and constantly receiving an electrical current. This is much like how your brain is constantly processing the environment around you through your senses. When the electrical wave leaves the wall, it travels down the wire to the television where you can see one of a thousand channels. Much like how the electrical wave travels from your eyes, down the axon of a neuron to the axon terminal where neurotransmitters are released creating thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of possible emotional and thought states.

Once this wave hits the terminal, dependant on the voltage, a specific neurotransmitter vesicle (think of a beanbag with neurotransmitter beans) is signaled to be released (spilling the beans), putting the neurotransmitters in the space between neurons called a synapse. Just like how changing the channel on a television changes what there is to see, changing the neurotransmitter release command changes what we feel and think. Once a neurotransmitter is released, it travels across a tiny gap, called a synaptic gap, to the receiving dendrite from another neuron. For the sake of this analogy, it is much like information traveling from the television, across the room, to the viewer. Extra neurotransmitters not received by the receptors of the receiving dendrite and are recycled back into the axon through a serotonin transporter, or SERT, which terminates the function of the released neurotransmitter in a process called reuptake.

What happens when ecstasy is ingested is that it targets the SERTs, and does not allow them to reuptake to terminate the serotonin release thereby increasing the activity time of the released serotonin. Also, through a process calls phosphorylation the SERT reverses its function and releases serotonin into the host neuron. This is typical of all releasing agent drugs such as amphetamines. Basically it turns of your neural recycling system for unnecessary neurotransmitters, and floods your brain with serotonin forcing its metabolism. Ecstasy also performs this exact function for dopamine and norepinephrine. Technically MDMA can be classified as a serotonin-dopamine-norepinephrine releasing agent and serotonin-dopamine-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor.

Serotonin is a mood, sleep and appetite regulator among other things. Typical users experience a loss of appetite, lack of a desire to sleep, and a positive mood. Ecstasy’s entactogenic (a drug that induces feelings of empathy) behavior is believed to be related to the shift of neuro-modulation relating to serotonin, which occurs upon metabolization of MDMA and triggers the release of oxytocin. A chemical naturally secreted after orgasm, hugging, childbirth or female nipple stimulation. Some believe this hormone exists as the mechanism for promoting trust universally among humans, and may be the foundation for organized society altogether.

Norepinephrine, or noradrenaline is a stress hormone and release of which stimulates increased heart rate, more circulation to the limbs, dumps glucose (energy) into the body and increases blood pressure, which may explain the desire to move or dance in the user as well as headaches. Because of the increased circulation, and typical hot, crowded environment of the typical user, and because MDMA hinders urination, there is an increased risk of hyperthermia, or an increased body temperature due to the inability of the body to regulate its own healthy temperature homeostasis because of the flooding of regulating neurotransmitters. Your body literally loses the ability to control its own temperature while using MDMA. The heating up of important bodily organs, and brain can result in organ failure, brain damage and in extreme cases, death. Mixing MDMA with diuretics such as alcohol or caffeine can further exacerbate the condition.

Dopamine has several neurological functions. Relating to MDMA, it changes the way in which our brain controls our movements. When the dopamine neurons die, you lose the ability to perform controlled, smooth movements in a condition called Parkinson’s disease. It is also instrumental in the reward system of the brain promoting the repetition of certain rewarding tasks. Is it naturally released when experiencing sex or food, and unnaturally released with certain drugs such as amphetamines, cocaine, and nicotine and with related stimuli.

The typical user may describe the experience of the dose as being euphoric and peaceful, a sense of connectedness with the self and the world. High levels of intimacy and empathy with others are also experienced. MDMA is a sensory enhancing drug and subsequently users may feel the need to touch or be touched to increase physical sensations, massaging is a very common practice among users. “Light-shows”, or watching an individual dancing with bright lights may be another typical occurrence for the user as visual stimulation is also very pleasurable. Scent is also stimulated and scented products such as mentholated lozenges or cigarettes are also readily used.

MDMA also makes you thirsty, and the bodily warmth experienced drives the user to drink, excessive drinking can cause hyponatremia, or the dilution of the blood and flooding of the users body with liquid faster than it can be expelled. This can create confusion in the user. A typical symptom of this drug is vomiting, and because vomiting elicits the release of vasopressin, a water retention hormone, it creates a dangerous feedback loop where the user feels sick and, vomits, vasopressin is released to hold in liquid, the user drinks more to hydrate, and creates a vicious cycle of chemical reactions which may increase the symptoms from headache and thirst to convulsions and even coma, especially if the user is unaware.

Another side effect is jaw clenching and teeth grinding, extended use can cause jaw fatigue as well as wear on the teeth.

MDMA reaches its highest blood concentration between an hour and a half and three hours after ingestion. A typical 100 mg dose lasts for up to 8 hours, however there still may be existing levels of MDMA within the user’s body. After the completion of the entactogenic experience or “roll”, 65% of the MDMA is excreted through urination while 7% is metabolized into MDA, a psychedelic stimulant used in various transcendence practices and may cause visual hallucinations.

After effects may consist of the user experiencing a low mood later in the week due to a lack of available mood regulating neurotransmitters as well as a sense of fatigue. This comes with a higher risk to those being treated for depression as the after effects may exacerbate the condition. Agitation, impaired focus, motivation and concentration may all also be present. Serotonin poisoning or Serotonin syndrome is a minimal risk, but much higher if the user is using a MAOI antidepressant or if the user mixing various serotonergic drugs. Mixing different drugs is highly warned against due to the possibly very dangerous consequences.

Chronic use of Neurotransmitter releasing agents such as MDMA, has a consequence of over stimulating the neurons to become dependent on the constant level of neurotransmitters. Once a Neurotransmitter is accepted by the related neuron it is communicating with, neural growth factor strengthens the connections between the two neurons; and the receiving neuron adapts to the new current chemical balance. The sending neurons end up sending more neurotransmitters into the receiver than is healthy, and the chronic user may find themselves poisoning themselves with their own brain. One such consequence is serotonin syndrome, where the nerve cells in the brain produce excess amounts of serotonin and can ultimately result in several behavioral abnormalities and even death.

The brain communicates through a variance in different chemical level concentrations, and any drug that changes the normal functioning of the brain should be met with a high degree of caution. Ecstasy is almost universally illegal, It is my opinion that the and the consumption of which should include concern of potential health hazards and legal consequences should be analyzed prior to use, and if one makes an educated decision to use MDMA for any purpose to take special notice of potential hazards one may encounter.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

MDMA – Pt 1, A brief history.

Disclaimer: Information presented is not meant to replace the advice of a physician. Information presented on this website are for informational purposes only. Please consult a physician with any questions or concerns relating to your health.

Due to request I’m writing a two-part article on ecstasy, I think I may do one of these drug posts a month. I still believe that to understand something with a wide perspective, it is important to understand the context that created the situation you find yourself in today whether through evolutionary psychology or through some simple research.

“Having a new major drug arrive on the scene is something that happens every half century or so, this is a major event in drug history.”

Christmas Eve, 1912, a new drug is born, MDMA. It isn’t until the late 70’s that MDMA started to develop more popularity. Psychologist Leo Zeff names the drug “Adam”, as he feels it returns the user to a state of bliss and innocence. Therapists begin using the drug and find it has incredible value for treatment of PTSD, clinical depression, and reducing death anxiety in individuals with terminal cancer. Ralph Metzner, PhD is quoted saying, “The very fact, it doesn’t change ordinary perception very much but changes the feeling quality, and reduces fear, thereby allowing you to look at in an impartial way, things that are too anxiety provoking to look at.”

Religious leaders worldwide soon take notice of the drug’s effects. A rabbi remembers his experience in “great delight in loving the universe and feeling loved by the universe.” A Benedictine monk was quoted saying, “Ecstasy has the capacity to put one on the path to divine union.” A Buddhist monk said it helped him become enlightened. Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers begin dispersing the drug internationally. Catholic priest Michael Clegg christens the drug “Ecstasy”, and was recorded as saying “It’s like Moses on the mountain, with the revelation!”

Clegg begins giving away MDMA in Texas at levels never seen before, increasing the amount of consumed ecstasy from a total 10,000 American doses, to approximately 500,000 per month. Clegg seeing it as a way to see the thoughts of God, started just giving it away, and soon, selling it, becoming ecstasy’s first millionaire. In 1984, the DEA notices the surge of this new drug, and in a typical knee jerk reaction uses emergency powers to place the drug in schedule 1(no medical use, high propensity for abuse) ignoring a judges advice to make it schedule 3, equating ecstasy use with that of heroin. This illegalization has no little effect on the spread of the drug. This same year the conservative Reagan administration begins it’s “just say no” campaign.

Ecstasy goes underground, and finds its way into nightclubs. This is also the genesis of a new form of music, Electronic Dance Music, or EDM. This music and dance scene acts as a perfect environment to foster ecstasy’s usage as a sensory enhancer with bright colorful lights, loud booming music and high population density; it explodes exponentially beginning a new type of dance party, the rave. It was typical in the early 90s to see raves or dance parties with anywhere from thousands to tens of thousands of people.

In the late 90’s the government begins a media campaign headed by Dr. Alan Leshner, head of the National Institute on Drug abuse (NIDA) to discourage the use of ecstasy. The opening shot was the releasing of neuro-imaging scans showing the supposed brain state before as bright and health and after ecstasy usage, dull and full of holes. He is quoted by saying; “Even occasional use or single use is like playing Russian roulette with your own brain.” The government reported that serotonin function decreased in subjects from 50% to 85%. Serotonin is responsible for a multitude of functions including mood, appetite and sleep. The government reported that even 1 dose of ecstasy could cause Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Stephen Kish, is one scientist who challenged the claims of the government and specifically targeted the postcards handed out by NIDA. Kish challenged the validity of very foundations of the study.

Another study in Germany found that not only was serotonin function not decreased by such a large percentage, in actuality, only 4-5%, but that after 3 months of abstained usage there was no noticeable difference in brain function. Proving the previous data a complete exaggeration of the risk. The previous study showing the increase of Parkinson’s disease was proven instead to be based off of not MDMA, but Methamphetamine, a far more dangerous chemical. As far as the risk of death goes, in a 3-year period, a New York medical examiner looked to see the role of ecstasy in deaths. Of the 19,000 deaths 22 had ecstasy in their system, and 2 died from only ecstasy. At the time, the DEA reported that New Yorkers used approximately 110 million doses.

The cost of the DEA, who cried wolf, may have more long lasting repercussions than previously thought, by decreasing the credibility of the government, in an already highly skeptical youth culture. The difficulty in government regulation of the drug may in fact be caused by the nonchalant attitude taken in the early stages of MDMA regulation, valuing political agendas and propaganda scare tactics over the intelligence of the average American. The fear for the government may now be not only does the drug bridge all age demographics and have high user satisfaction but now even valid health concerns may be met with disbelief and resentment.

There are risks however, involved in the recreational consumption of the drug, and when the government made the drug illegal, criminals took control of it. In an attempt to make profit, the manufacturers of MDMA may mix different substances in with the pills unknown to the typical user. In understanding that the motivation of the source is only profit and is inherently criminalistic in nature, a trust placed on the friendly words of a friend or acquaintance in regard to an individual’s neurological health, may be misplaced. Currently there are resources available to the public such as a website dedicated to the documentation and data basing of ecstasy internationally through user reports and scientific chemical analysis.

The use of mind-altering substances to elicit religious and emotional experiences has been around since the knowledge of their existence and is unlikely that this will stop any time soon. They are still used in religious groups today with consumption of alcohol in Catholicism at communion; Cannabis in Rastafarianism and Hinduism, Mescaline is used in certain Native American rituals, etcetera. With access to factual information one is able to pick the truth out from a sea of biased here-say and typical media tactics used to increase their viewer ship. I trust that an individual armed with knowledge can organize their behaviors in a constructive and responsible fashion and make educated choices to improve their lives.

Later this week, ill write about what exactly happens in the brain during a typical ecstasy dose, emotionally, chemically, and what some the neuroplastic consequences a user may experience.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Blogger Background

Before I post this next post, I want to give you a little background on me, and why I’m writing this blog to begin with so you can understand my motivation a little better and why I find this information to be so relevant.

Before my interest in the brain developed I was diagnosed with dysthymic depression, anxiety and ADHD. Dysthymic basically means chronic and long-lasting anxiety clouds the brain with excessively worrisome thoughts and exacerbates the ADHD's hindrance on focus. The worst part about depression in my opinion is that it kills your motivation. All you want to do is be by yourself, eat and sleep. This motivational impact contributes exponentially to the cycle of isolation, low self-esteem and low self-confidence. The thoughts associated with these self-perceptions add more fuel to the fire of despondency and social withdrawal. I isolated myself, and spent a lot of time thinking about very existential things and being very introspective. In my isolation I used the Internet to try and answer all of the questions I had had that popped into my head about religion, afterlife, God, and existence. If there was or wasn't a God, how did that relate to my purpose in life? These questions always brought me back to a core understanding. I am above all things, a Human, What are the rules humans must live by?

I forced myself out of my isolation and made a pact with myself to not spend a day a home if it could be avoided. I decided that this funk I was in wasn't helping anyone and it was time for me to help myself. The questions I had about life wouldn't go away and I felt compelled to find some answers. Through the course of my informational exploration, I came to ask myself some new questions and gained a new level of awareness. I started thinking, "What good is information if it can’t help you have a higher quality of life? Wouldn't more valuable information help you AND others have a higher quality of life?”

It took me a few years to get out of the depressed state, which had since become engrained into almost every aspect of my life, my sleeping habits, my eating, and grooming habits, thoughts, posture, etc. My desire shifted from wanting an understanding of reality and the universe, to wanting to understand how I could create a better life for myself, and how I could share this information to help and empower others the way I was empowered and helped.

The search for answers always ended up leading me to the brain one way or another, and specifically to "Mindfulness Based Self-Cognitive Behavioral Therapy". This is a means of therapy to be used by the individual in which one controls their own thoughts to create neuroplastic change in brain structure, and ultimately creates new, healthier behavioral patterns and feedback loops. This therapy drew my interest for one, because it didn't require a psychiatrist and medications or bills, all it took to start the process was information and a little dedication. I felt empowered with every new bit of information I picked up about the brain. Learning more and more my desire to share the information just grew.

My goal with this blog is to at the very least increase the knowledge of the average reader, to make modern neuroscience and psychology accessible to the average person. I believe that a great step towards helping yourself is knowing yourself, and that increasing that level of information, can only increase the awareness of the individual. I think American author Bryant McGill said id best, "Knowledge is that possession that no misfortune can destroy, no authority can revoke, and no enemy can control. This makes knowledge the greatest of all freedoms."

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Memes, Genes and You

I once had an anthropology professor who told me “when you want to know someone, get to know his or her family.” Who is your family? They’re more than the people who raised you, more than the people who raised them; they are more than your friends and co-workers. They are the millions of years of evolutionary history that have shaped your genetics. You’re predispositions, your fears, your likes; you favorite foods all come from a history, which manifests itself in your neurobiology. How you see and react to the world is dependant on the biology that aided your ancestor’s pursuit to survive and reproduce. A pursuit grounded in 50 million years of trial and error, progression, regression, and trial by fire.

Your brain is you. Everything you think, taste, hear, touch, smell, and see, define who you are. Each of your senses is designed to attract your attention to the most important and relevant things to be aware of in terms of these survival and reproduction triggers. These “important” attention grabbers have been well known to the marketing companies for years. One can only imagine how much money bright colors, stimulating music, and provocative females have made companies over the years.

These pre-wired mental attributes come from millions of years of natural selection. Traits and behaviors that were beneficial to primates 10 million years ago exist today, nowhere near as relevant as they were. Primates used to exist in roaming bands of hunter-gatherers in populations no larger than a couple hundred. Now we exist in a society where millions co-exist in a single city. In the current state of affairs, it is possible to interact on a daily basis with more different people in a week than we would have seen in a lifetime.

With the knowledge of agriculture and farming under 15 thousand years ago, (practically nothing with consideration to the millions and millions of years of primate neuro-evolution) humanoids transferred from roaming bands and scavengers to stationary, farmers. Millions of years of roaming band behaviors, mental schemata, and survival archetypes all took a large shift, a shift towards the domestic. With this shift came artificial selection, Humans began to change their environment to suit their tastes. Crops yielded more and more usable energy, livestock genetics shifted to suit the needs of their masters, and both began a new cycle of inter-dependence. Livestock could no longer survive in the wild, having been artificially selected for their submissive natures and ease of domestication would make them easy pickings for natural predators. Plants without humans to pollinate and maintain them would wither and die independently.

What happened to all of these hunter and gatherer genes? Did they just disappear? No. They exist and are as active as they ever were. The conflict between a culture’s speed of informational evolution, and an incredibly slow moving genetic guide has only begun to yield a noticeable behavioral shift recently with the advances in technology that came with this cultural advance.

Culture propagates and communicates in units of information called “memes”. Every time someone speaks, makes an art piece, writes a song, and someone else is able to interpret the information, that can pretty much qualify itself as a meme. New memes grow like fire when given the right catalyst. Nazism in Germany is a perfect example, so is laughter at a comedy club. Genes however behave much differently. Genes act as behavioral and biological blueprints. There is not much variety in genetics. There is approximately a 98% similarity in genetics between a chimpanzee and a human. Genetics are slow moving, slowly evolving, and slowly mutating and require a massive amount of energy to change. There is a new genetic mutation once in about every 500 generations. Memes however, can shift behavior in an instant. This may give you an indicator into the huge gap between ones ease in which behaviors can be manipulated through memes versus genes. How has this large behavioral gap changed in the last hundred years of informational boom? In a word? Marketing.

The mechanism of artificial selection is being used today. Your “sweet tooth” began as a tool to create a motivation in an individual to look for a rare naturally occurring substance. Companies have taken advantage of this fact. Candies and sugars now invade almost every facet of a modern life-style; High-fructose corn syrup has permeated everything from beverages, to breads. Obesity and diabetes is at an all time high. The average individual is conditioned to almost 30 hours of a week of television that takes advantage of your attention wiring, pulling the strings of your attention to Victoria secret models, Honda, US Military propaganda ads, Mc Donald’s. ADHD is at near epidemic proportions.

Corporations and culture have created a feedback loop of mental manipulation and profit. An example, you see an advertisement for a vacation spot. Tropical music elicits a mood state of calmness and serenity. A man with a thick Jamaican accent explains to you in visually stunning terms the wonders of Jamaica. Smiling scantily clad men and women enjoy themselves at bars and beautiful beaches. The imagery elicits a sense of fun and sexual arousal. These mental states now become linked with the corporate message. Jamaica is sex, fun and relaxation. The next time you try to think of something to do, Jamaica sneaks its way into your consciousness whispering, “how about a trip to Jamaica?”

Culture has revolutionized the world in the last hundred or so years, there is no doubt. This is the information age. Diseases have been cured which were once a death sentence; life expectancy is going up and is only increasing. How else this information will be used is another pertinent question, whether this information revolution will be beneficial or detrimental to you is ultimately in the hands of the individual. Will the strings of a predisposed populace be plucked for purely monetary gains ad infinitum, or will an increase of information and awareness free a populace from a dependence on the corporations by a increased knowledge of self, and history? I believe an awareness of your evolutionary inclinations can only serve to aid you in a grounded pursuit of happiness.

You have a predisposition happy state. A state determined by your cultural conditioning and biology. A state set in the proverbial genetic stone of who you are. The “switches” that make you happy are flicked on at a mind-boggling level through media, desensitizing us to true happiness, personal satisfaction.

An increased ability to recognize the temporary and ultimately fleeting satiation of your evolutionary desires perpetuated by cultural capitalism, versus satisfaction through the utilization of the mental tools you have had your whole life, can only perpetuate a healthier, happier brain. You are genetically designed to achieve happiness through the flicking of these “happiness switches”.

What are these switches? What are the mental tools that can be used to increase the quality of life? Stay tuned until next week ;)