Last year, a series of tragic deaths in the United States highlighted risks associated with taking Ecstasy, a version of the mind-altering drug also known as “Molly” or MDMA. Now, a study by a respected medical body in the US suggests that the drug could prove fatal in warm environments such as pop concerts.

Last year, news channel CNN produced some disturbing information about the effects of MDMA, citing “nine things everyone should know”. Is this post the precursor to one of those annoying homilies on the dangers of habit-forming drugs, to be followed by a mantra on the lines of “drugs are bad” (you know, like that funny line in South Park)? Short answer: Nope.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US, a moderate dose of MDMA, commonly known as Ecstasy or Molly - typically non-fatal in cool, quiet environments - can be lethal in rats exposed to conditions that mimic the hot, crowded, social settings where the drug is often used by people. Scientists have identified the therapeutically relevant cooling mechanism to enable effective interventions when faced with MDMA-induced hyperthermia. The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, was conducted by researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Intramural Research Programme.

Whereas MDMA can have a range of adverse health effects, says the NIH, previous studies have shown that high doses of MDMA increase body temperature, while results with moderate doses were inconsistent. This has led some people to assume that the drug is harmless if taken in moderation. However, this study shows that in rats even moderate doses of MDMA in certain environments can be dangerous because it interferes with the body’s ability to regulate temperature. “We know that high doses of MDMA can sharply increase body temperature to potentially lead to organ failure or even death,” said NIDA Director Dr Nora D. Volkow. “However, this current study opens the possibility that even moderate doses could be deadly in certain conditions.”

It is impossible to predict who will have an adverse reaction even to a low dose of MDMA. However, in this study, scientists gave the rats low to moderate doses that have been shown in past studies to not be fatal. They monitored the rats to determine drug-induced changes in brain and body temperature and in the body’s ability to cool itself through blood vessel dilation. When rats were alone and in a room-temperature environment, a moderate dose of MDMA modestly increased brain and body temperature and moderately diminished the rats’ ability to eliminate excessive heat. However, when researchers injected the same dose in rats that were either in a warmer environment or in the presence of another rat in the cage, brain temperature increased, causing death in some rats. These fatal temperature increases were because the drug interfered with the body’s ability to eliminate heat.

“These results demonstrate that the use of MDMA in certain warm, social settings could be more dangerous than commonly believed,” said Dr Eugene Kiyatkin, first author on the study and a NIDA IRP scientist. “Even with moderate doses, we saw drug-induced, fatal brain hyperthermia during conditions of social interaction and in warm environments.”

Past experience suggests that people who habitually take Ecstasy will read this and say: “C’mon, guys… we’re talking about rats here!” Our response: Rats are, of course, small mammals, and there are reams of scientific documents supporting the view that what affects them may well affect humans. Just a thought…