What ‘Molly’ — the Silicon Valley elite’s drug of choice at sex parties — does to your brain and body

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Unsplash/Anthony Delanoix

Exclusive sex parties fueled by psychoactive drugs are apparently how the tech world elite like to get down in Silicon Valley, according to an excerpt from the Bloomberg reporter Emily Chang’s new book, “Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley.

Chang wrote that the events, in which women can feel pressured to participate yet be stigmatized for doing so, are common enough that they’re not much of a secret.

MDMA – also known as Ecstasy or Molly – has been a party drug since the psychopharmacologist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin synthesized and tested it on himself in the 1970s.

Shulgin, known as the “godfather of Ecstasy,” was entranced by his testing. He began to advocate MDMA’s use in clinical settings, but it soon started turning up in clubs, leading to a widespread ban in 1985.

Once Ecstasy developed a reputation for being adulterated with more dangerous chemicals, people starting asking for “Molly,” something they saw as a pure form of the drug.

Here’s what we know about what MDMA does to your body and brain.


MDMA was created by the pharmaceutical company Merck in 1912 and is considered an illegal substance in the US with no medical benefit and a high potential for abuse.

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Shulgin and his wife, Ann, in December 2005.
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REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Contrary to legend, MDMA was not the first part of an experiment in suppressing the appetites of soldiers in the German army. Merck scientists created the chemical while trying to make a drug that would prevent blood clotting. It was abandoned for a while but had been considered promising because of its similarity to adrenaline.

According to Merck records, it was most likely first tested on humans in 1959 and then started to appear every so often in the 1960s and ’70s until Shulgin recreated it and began to push for its use in therapy sessions. The drug’s popularity spread.


Nevertheless, the drug remains popular. In the short term, Ecstasy can make you feel good.

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In the brain, MDMA amps up the activity of three chemical messengers involved in mood regulation: serotonin, norepinephrine, and, to a lesser extent, dopamine.

Most of our conclusions about the effects of MDMA have focused on serotonin, one of the most widely studied neurotransmitters. In addition to acutely affecting mood, it’s thought to affect how we sleep and experience pain.

Small neuroscientific studies of the drug suggest it may help blunt negative feelings about the past while enhancing positive ones – a conclusion that would make sense given its reputation as a “love drug.”

For one such study published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, women were alternately given MDMA and a placebo (without knowing which was which) and asked to recall their favorite and least favorite memories of themselves.

When given the MDMA, the women rated their favorite memories as “significantly more vivid, emotionally intense, and positive” and their worst ones as “less negative,” the study’s authors wrote.


You may also feel more energetic.

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While some components of MDMA have psychedelic or sensory-enhancing effects, it also has stimulant properties that users say gives them the energy to dance or engage in vigorous physical activity for hours.

MDMA is at least in part a derivative of amphetamines, giving it those energy-boosting properties.


Your heart rate will increase.

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Just like with other stimulants, a dose of MDMA boosts heart rate and can increase blood pressure. Dangerous side effects are much more likely when unknown chemicals (like amphetamines) have been mixed into the pills.


And it might also cause you to feel hot or give you the chills.

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Those same energizing effects that boost heart rate and blood pressure also raise body temperature. Some people experience hot flashes or chills on MDMA.

It’s possible that people who have taken Ecstasy in a warm place (like a packed club) and spent hours doing vigorous activity without taking time to cool down can experience hyperthermia, a rare side effect that requires medical attention. MDMA use does increase the risk of heat stroke, however.

Dehydration is also a concern in these settings, though some people who use MDMA have harmed themselves by drinking too much water to prevent this – something that can also be dangerous.


Ecstasy enhances sensory experiences, which is why it’s often associated with music events and sex.

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MDMA not only provides prolonged euphoria, but it enhances sensory experiences like music and physical sensations like touch, people who use it say.

Users may be more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors, one small study found.


Ecstasy can amplify what you see, feel, and hear.

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Ecstasy is both a stimulant and a psychedelic, meaning it has both energy-raising and hallucinogenic properties.

While it may not induce hallucinations outright, MDMA can seem to amplify or enhance what you see, feel, and hear. Activities like dancing, talking, and touching may appear to further intensify these feelings.


Scientists are studying MDMA’s potential to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychiatric diseases.

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Despite MDMA’s reputation as a party drug, neuroscientists and psychologists are hard at work studying its potential to help treat psychiatric diseases like post-traumatic stress disorder.

The drug may help people put experiences such as violence or war into perspective, enabling them to move on with their lives in a positive way.

One arm of this research involves studying MDMA use in veterans with PTSD. Study participants are given small doses of the drug alongside traditional talk therapy.

Together, the treatments could help produce faster and more measurable results, people involved in the research say.

“Psychotherapy is painful. It’s slow. It’s fits and starts; you start to get to something important, and then the patient disappears for a month,” Julie Holland, a New York-based psychiatrist who monitors one of these studies, told Business Insider at a recent psychedelic-research conference in London.

“MDMA can act as a catalyst to make the therapy go faster and deeper,” Holland said.


But more research is needed before it could be deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

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The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies is leading the charge to get MDMA approved for medical use.

The group’s efforts passed a major hurdle last summer when the US Food and Drug Administration granted the drug a special designation that could fast-track its approval to treat PTSD.

Because it’s still illegal, the Ecstasy bought and sold on the black market is unregulated, meaning it can be adulterated – or mixed with other, cheaper drugs – resulting in a dangerous product that can produce unwanted side effects.

Many case reports cited in the 1990s warning of the drug’s producing “holes in your brain,” for example, most likely involved adulterated forms instead of pure MDMA.


The effects of a common dose of MDMA can last for up to six hours.

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A typical dose of MDMA – 80 to 125 milligrams – lasts for three to six hours.

Some people who use it say report having nausea as an MDMA high comes on, but most say they feel relaxation and clarity within about 45 minutes.

The peak high, often referred to as “rolling,” comes on within about an hour to 90 minutes after taking the drug.

Most effects subside after three to five hours, but some people can feel the effects for a bit longer.


Your pupils will dilate, and you may become sensitive to light.

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Like with other drugs, especially those with psychedelic properties, MDMA often causes pupils to dilate, and people who us it may become sensitive to light.

This effect is caused by the drug rapidly increasing serotonin levels in the brain.


MDMA has also been linked with jaw clenching and teeth grinding.

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And like other drugs with stimulant properties, MDMA use can cause people who use it to clench their jaw or grind their teeth, along with increasing their heart rate. This effect is likely worsened by taking adulterated pills.


Your muscles may also feel tense, and some people can faint while on Ecstasy.

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Mixing alcohol with MDMA is more dangerous.
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While MDMA can make people more likely to engage in physical activity, the stimulant’s effects on muscles and perception are varied. Most people’s reactions are impaired, some experience restless legs or stiff muscles, and, in rare cases, some have reported fainting.


Some people who use it say that coming down from the drug is accompanied by feelings of sadness or depression.

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Preclinical studies suggest that using Molly may temporarily deplete the brain’s serotonin stores.

Some people who use MDMA say that after the initial high wears off, they have intense feelings of sadness, anxiety, or even depression that can last from one to three days. Others say it affects their sleeping patterns and appetite as well.

However, since most studies of these effects have been on rats, experts say more research on humans is needed to better understand what’s going on in the brain.