Hyperthermia is the technical term for a loss of internal control over body temperature that can produce severe or even fatal changes in organ health. For a long time, doctors and researchers have known that use of large doses of the “club drug” MDMA (more commonly known as Ecstasy or Molly) is linked to increased chances of experiencing this dangerous temperature dysregulation. In a study published in June 2014 in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse used laboratory experiments on rats to further explore the issue of hyperthermia in MDMA users. These researchers concluded that even a fairly moderate dose of the drug can trigger lethal spikes in brain temperature when consumed in warm or hot environments.
MDMA (Ecstasy, Molly)
MDMA, Ecstasy and Molly are all shorthand terms for an artificially produced substance called 3,4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine. When taken in any significant amount, this substance produces effects inside the brain and body that partially resemble the effects of a class of drugs called stimulants, and also partially resemble the effects of a second class of drugs called hallucinogens. MDMA was discovered accidentally by a research chemist in the 1970s. Since that time, the drug has gained some measure of popularity due to its ability to produce such things as alterations in the normal senses of sight and touch, an increase in energy levels and heightened feelings of expansiveness and good will. In addition to the onset of hyperthermia, known possible negative outcomes of MDMA use include potentially dangerous spikes in blood pressure and/or heart rate, overdose and signs of addiction such as a diminishing susceptibility to MDMA’s effects, continued use of MDMA in the face of clear harm and a withdrawal syndrome that appears when habitual use of the drug ceases or drops off rapidly.
The human body naturally seeks to maintain an internal temperature that supports ongoing health and well-being. However, under certain conditions, the mechanisms that keep internal temperatures within a safe range can fail and an affected individual can develop either hyperthermia (an excessively high body temperature) or hypothermia (an excessively low body temperature). If left unchecked, either of these regulatory failures can produce potentially fatal consequences as a result of degraded function in various major organs. The most widely known forms of hyperthermia are likely heat exhaustion and life-endangering heat stroke. Other forms of the condition include heat cramps, heat-related lightheadedness (heat syncope) and heat fatigue.
Link to Moderate MDMA Consumption
In the study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, the National Institute on Drug Abuse researchers gave low and moderate doses of MDMA to a group of rats as part of an attempt to recreate the real-world conditions that could potentially trigger the onset of hyperthermia in MDMA-using human beings. The researchers tracked the connection between MDMA intake, external temperature and internal temperature with the help of sensors implanted in the rats’ brains, heads, faces and remote body areas.
Like prior investigators, the researchers concluded that use of moderate amounts of MDMA at fairly low environmental temperatures (roughly 71˚ F to 73˚ F) does not consistently produce any risk for the development of hyperthermia. However, they also concluded that the risks for hyperthermia inside the brain start to rise dramatically when the temperature in the surrounding environment increases by only a few degrees to approximately 84˚ F. The researchers linked the onset of brain hyperthermia in this warmer environment to a decline in the body’s ability to vent excess heat. In turn, they linked this declining ability to abnormal constriction of blood vessels in the skin and other non-centralized body locations. Some of the rats that experienced brain hyperthermia in the warmer environmental conditions died from their condition.
The study’s authors specifically used doses of MDMA generally regarded as too low to produce hyperthermia in the average user of the drug. They also compared the internal temperature changes in solitary rats to the internal temperature changes of rats gathered together in groups. The concluded that, even when isolated, rats exposed to the combination of moderate-dose MDMA and warmer environments experienced some increase in their internal temperatures. However, the fatal changes in internal temperature occurred in animals exposed to the combination of moderate-dose MDMA, warmer environments and the presence of other rats. The authors believe they have established the possibility for fatal hyperthermia-related outcomes in human MDMA users who consume the drug in moderate amounts in fairly common environmental conditions, such as those found at clubs and parties.