Fans of former teen actress Melissa Joan Hart reacted with some shock when pre-publication rumors of drug use detailed in her autobiography hit the press. Melissa Explains It All: Tales from My Abnormally Normal Life is scheduled for release on October 29, 2013, and according to Life & Style magazine, Ms. Hart considers her 18 months of drug use part of her so-called "normal" life. The actress describes a year and a half of illegal drug use, including marijuana, mescaline, and MDMA (also known as "Ecstasy").
What exactly is Ecstasy? Known to Madonna and other celebrities as "Molly" and familiar to many by its acronym, MDMA, it is 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, a "designer drug" that behaves similarly to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). In fact, MDMA poses a particular threat to health when it is consumed by an individual already taking prescribed (or illicitly obtained) SSRIs.
Writing in the International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, a team of researchers identify an ailment known as "serotonin syndrome," caused by the "rapid, synergistic rise of serotonin (5-HT) concentration in the central nervous system." Symptoms include confusion, rapid heart rate, and diarrhea. Potential complications of untreated serotonin syndrome include unconsciousness and death.
Scientists are divided regarding the long-term effects of MDMA on the brain. Writing in the August 2013 issue of Molecular Psychiatry, French researchers note that repeated MDMA exposure can induce long-term plasticity (changeability) of noradrenergic and serotonergic neurons, with potential implications for addictive behaviors.
Spanish scientists writing in the August 2013 issue of Neurotoxicity Research concur, but note that no changes were detected among their subjects with respect to the genes related to neurotoxicity. Meanwhile, a separate French research team found a "large effect" of MDMA on chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when paired with psychotherapy. It's unlikely Ms. Hart chose to use MDMA to combat PTSD. Scientists will likely learn more about the effects of this drug in years to come.