9 Popular Drug Myths Ep 3 – Ecstasy Brain Holes, Sobering Coffee, and Marijuana Medicine
By Lauren Brande | Published 6/26/17
My name is Lollie and you’re listening to Let’s Talk Drugs, where we take an in-depth look at substance abuse by examining the evidence. Let’s Talk Drugs is presented by ProjectKnow.com (that’s project k-n-o-w dot com), a website dedicated to providing accurate and easy-to-understand information about drugs and alcohol. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse, call us at to speak with a recovery support advisor about getting help.
This series will explore 9 popular drug myths, from single-use heroin addiction to whether or not ecstasy can cause holes in your brain. We’ll be featuring 3 myths per episode, so be sure to subscribe and check back next Monday for more drug debunking.
In the last episode, we learned that LSD is not stored in spinal fluid for the rest of your life, prescription drugs can be just as dangerous as illicit substances, and addiction can happen in all walks of life- from the homeless to the mansion dwellers. This final episode will examine ecstasy brain holes, the effectiveness of coffee to sober a person up, and the risks associated with marijuana.
Myth #7: Ecstasy Causes ‘Holes’ in Your Brain
The rumor that Ecstasy (MDMA) causes physically extensive brain damage is exactly that – a rumor. It originated in one particular study from 1998 that examined PET brain scans of former Ecstasy users and non-users. The study found a toxic, damaging effect of the drug.1
Media outlets took up the study and began dramatizing and spreading this misinformation, including the Oprah Winfrey Show and MTV. The problem is, this interpretation was off-base and rooted in public misconception of the scan images.
“PET scans can show differential communication and function within a brain, but they can’t display finely detailed brain structure. “
As it turns out, the study had seriously flawed methods that rendered its results inconclusive.2 Not only were many subjects in the study multi-drug users (meaning the results can’t be attributed to Ecstasy alone), but the “damaged brain” PET scan image doesn’t even show the brain’s actual structure.
To better understand how poorly these results were understood, let me give you a quick overview of what a PET scan actually is. A positron emission tomography (PET) scan involves the injection of a small amount of a radioactive substance, called a tracer, into the bloodstream.3 The tracer then travels throughout the body, including into the brain, where it collects in tissues and organs. Once absorbed, a special scanning machine is used to detect the tracer throughout the body, revealing how organs and tissues are working.
PET scans can show differential communication and function within a brain, but they can’t display finely detailed brain structure. This means they are imprecise in displaying anatomic details and defects like supposed brain “holes.” Only a CT or MRI scan or, perhaps, close brain tissue examination performed during autopsy could reveal such details. The study that many have used to claim that Ecstasy causes extensive physical brain damage is not only flawed in methods, but in interpretation as well.
Is Ecstasy Dangerous?
That said, Ecstasy does impact neurons in the brain related to pleasure and reward, though most of the effects don’t last beyond the high. The research that exists on Ecstasy’s long-term effects has primarily examined polydrug users, which means that it is not possible to attribute the observed effects to MDMA alone.2, 4, 5 In fact, if the effect of other drug use is minimized, almost no long-term cognitive effects are seen.6, 7
But before you run out and decide to give Ecstasy a try, consider the fact that most Ecstasy pills contain a mix of MDMA and other various drugs such as ketamine, amphetamine, methamphetamine, and ephedrine.8 Many products sold as “pure” MDMA are actually just bath salts, which are synthetic cathinones that have effects similar to MDMA, but come with a whole host of potential health dangers, including psychiatric issues, neurological changes, heart and blood circulation problems, or even sudden death.9 These other mystery substances can have long-lasting effects on brain function and structure, which may be why enduring functional damage is seen in polydrug users.
On top of the effects of these other substances being mixed into Ecstasy, MDMA itself has been linked to some concerning effects, mainly related to the typical environment in which it is taken: It’s hot, it’s crowded, it’s… the club.
“These other mystery substances can have long-lasting effects on brain function and structure, which may be why enduring functional damage is seen in polydrug users.”
The party scene is particularly rife with Ecstasy users, many of which are over-exerting and under-hydrating. This is the perfect recipe for hyperthermia, or overheating. Water and rest help the body regulate its temperature, but when a person gets high on MDMA in a party environment, they’re going to do what feels good: dance. For hours. Hyperthermia and dehydration can lead to many dangerous health issues, including toxic muscle breakdown and multi-organ failure, which can be fatal.10
Ecstasy might not cause holes in your brain, but that doesn’t make it safe, especially if there are unknown substances mixed in.
Myth #8: Coffee Can Sober You Up if You’re Drunk
The only way a person can sober up after drinking is to lower their blood alcohol concentration (BAC), and the liver handles this duty for us. (Thanks, liver!) Coffee can increase a person’s metabolic rate. But can it affect the liver’s alcohol processing speed and accelerate sobriety?
The answer is a clear, undisputed NO. Caffeine has no effect on the liver’s metabolism of alcohol. Its effects are exerted mainly in other parts of the body.11, 12, 13 This means that a person’s BAC will stay the same before and after a cup of coffee, depending on how long it takes them to drink it.11
Combining alcohol, a depressant, and caffeine, a stimulant, can have counteracting effects that make a person feel like they are less drunk. But the reality is that they will still have impaired motor control, slowed visual reaction time, and a high BAC due to the alcohol.11
Risks of Mixing Coffee With Alcohol
When coffee starts to exert its effects, a person may begin to experience the alertness and energy increase that comes with stimulant use. The person may believe they are becoming more and more sober as alcohol’s depressant effects seem to be reduced. But make no mistake: The alcohol is still affecting that person just as much as before.11
The combination of alcohol and caffeine (or any other stimulant) is especially dangerous when a person mistakenly begins to drink more alcohol to make up for the caffeine-induced sense of sobriety. This can lead to alcohol poisoning and very dangerous effects on the body and the brain.14, 15 On top of all this, a person who combines alcohol and coffee may believe they are capable of driving, putting themselves and many others at risk.
It takes about one hour to fully process one standard drink (and many drinks contain multiple standard drinks)16 Nothing can help a person lower their BAC: not food, not water, and certainly not coffee. The only thing that can sober a person up is time (and a functioning liver).
Myth #9: Marijuana Is Safe Because It’s ‘Medical’
Let me start this off by clearly acknowledging the true medical benefits of marijuana. The use of marijuana, or cannabis, to alleviate chronic pain, neuropathic pain, and spasticity symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis all have high-quality evidence behind them.17, 18 Cannabinoids, which are the psychoactive compounds in marijuana (of which there are many, including THC and CBD), have also been approved for treatment of appetite loss in HIV and cancer as well as nausea and vomiting related to cancer chemotherapy.17
Cannabis as a treatment for glaucoma has preliminary evidence behind it, but not enough to be truly conclusive.17 This is generally the case for most other medical claims regarding the benefits of marijuana. From Parkinson’s to epilepsy, the evidence is either ambiguous or weak, but that’s not to say it doesn’t show promise.17 It’s just that more research needs to be done to confirm or refute these claims.
“…regular marijuana use has been associated with a higher risk of depression and anxiety, though it is important to note that we cannot determine which causes which.”
Unfortunately, research into the potential health benefits and risks of marijuana is extremely limited. It is classified as a Schedule I substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), indicating that the federal government considers it to be one of the most dangerous and deadly substances (alongside heroin). This classification is heavily debated, and rightfully so. There has never been a recorded case of lethal marijuana overdose.19 Ever.
But that doesn’t mean it’s harmless. In 2011, marijuana was involved in more than 36% of U.S. emergency department visits related to illicit drugs, second only to cocaine.20 For many users, weed high produces giggly, euphoric relaxation (or at worst, the irresistible urge to munch). Others are not so lucky.
For some people, the marijuana high is a nightmare of intense anxiety and paranoia. In fact, regular marijuana use has been associated with a higher risk of depression and anxiety, though it is important to note that we cannot determine which causes which.21 Marijuana could cause anxiety and depression, but it could just as well be that people with anxiety and depression are more likely to regularly use marijuana.
Other mental health issues related to marijuana use include an association with psychoses, particularly among those who are already genetically predisposed. Marijuana can speed up the progression of schizophrenia, and the ever-increasing potency of marijuana products takes this risk even further.18, 22
“Areas of the brain related to learning, memory, habit formation, inhibitory control, and executive function have all shown impaired functional connectivity, meaning chronic use could result in cognitive deficits.”
In terms of bodily risks, regular weed smokers run a higher risk of developing several health issues, including lung problems such as chronic bronchitis, respiratory infections, and pneumonia – though it’s important to note that these issues subside after people stop smoking.18, 22 There is also preliminary evidence that smoking marijuana may be linked to various forms of cancer; however, tobacco smoking is a major confounding variable in these studies, so more research is needed to corroborate these claims before they can be taken as fact.18, 22
Perhaps the most concerning adverse health effect of marijuana use is the effect it has on functional brain connections within certain regions of the brain, particularly among regular users.22 Areas of the brain related to learning, memory, habit formation, inhibitory control, and executive function have all shown impaired functional connectivity, meaning chronic use could result in cognitive deficits.22 Again, these effects are especially risky for adolescents, who are still developing their brain circuitry well into their 20s.
Even though all these health effects are certainly cause for concern, there is one major risk that often gets overlooked: the harsh judicial sentencing surrounding marijuana. Despite being medically and recreationally legalized in numerous states, marijuana remains illegal in the eyes of the federal government. This means that individuals caught smoking a joint or passing out “special” brownies to their friends can get in serious trouble with the law. The DEA has a policy of harsh sentencing for drug crimes, and because marijuana is considered a Schedule I drug, even low-level, non-violent offenses can result in years of prison time.
Despite showing medical benefit, marijuana use undeniably carries risks. The physical, mental, and legal repercussions may make you think twice before lighting up that next joint.
Well, that’s it! Our final 3 drug myths have been thoroughly debunked. Throughout this series we’ve closely examined 9 popular drug myths, only to find that they are just that- myths.
Every potential drug user should learn the facts about any substance they are going to ingest. Many substances come with a set of risks that make trying them simply not worth it. Instead of relying on hearsay for drug information, take some time to read about the effects of the drugs from reputable sources.
Ongoing research is exposing more and more about substances of abuse, debunking many drug myths one study at a time. Always remember: You can’t trust rumors, especially when it comes to drugs.
If you know a drug myth that wasn’t covered here, tweet us at #LetsTalkDrugs. Let us know what you thought of the series and what other myths you’d like us to excavate so we can uncover the truth. Don’t forget to check back for our next series, Your Brain on Drugs, where we will explain in easy-to-understand terms how drugs work on a neurological level. New episodes are released every Monday afternoon.
If you liked the series, subscribe and share so we can spread evidence-based drug information far and wide. We’re available on
SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, Youtube, and most podcast listening apps, so check our website for more information. Until next time, I’m Lollie and this has been Let’s Talk Drugs. ?
- MCann, U. D., Szabo, Z., Scheffel, U., Dannals, R. F., & Ricaurte, G. A. (1998). Positron emission tomographic evidence of toxic effect of MDMA (“Ecstasy”) on brain serotonin neurons in human beings. Lancet, 352(9138). 1433-1437.
- Kish, S. J. (2002). How strong is the evidence that brain serotonin neurons are damaged in human users of ecstasy? Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior, 71(4). 845-855.
- S. National Library of Medicine. (2016). PET scan. Medline Plus.
- Roberts, C. A., Jones, A., & Montgomery, C. (2016). Meta-analysis of executive functioning in ecstasy/polydrug users. Psychological Medicine, 46(8). 1581-1596.
- Roberts, C. A., Jones, A., & Montgomery, C. (2016). Meta-analysis of molecular imaging of serotonin transporters in ecstasy/polydrug users. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 63. 158-167.
- Halpern, J. H., Sherwood, A. R., Hudson, J. I., Gruber, S., Kozin, D., & Pope Jr., H. G. (2011). Residual neurocognitive features of long-term ecstasy users with minimal exposure to other drugs. Addiction, 106(4). 777-786.
- Hanson, K. L. & Luciana, M. (2010). Neurocognitive impairments in MDMA and other drug users: MDMA alone may not be a cognitive risk factor. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 32(4). 337-349.
- Tanner-Smith, E. E. (2006). Pharmacological content of tablets sold as “ecstasy”: results from an online testing service. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 83(3). 247-254.
- Prosser, J. M. & Nelson, L. S. (2012). The toxicology of bath salts: a review of synthetic cathinones. Journal of Medical Toxicology, 8(1). 33-42.
- Hall, A. P. & Henry, J. A. (2006). Acute toxic effects of ‘Ecstasy’ (MDMA) and related compounds: overview of pathophysiology and clinical management.British Journal of Anaesthesiology, 96(6). 678-685.
- Ferreira, S. E., de Mello, M. T., Pompeia, S., & de Souza-Formigoni, M. L. (2006). Effects of energy drink ingestion on alcohol intoxication. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 30(4). 598-605.
- Ferre, S. & O’Brien, M. C. (2011). Alcohol and caffeine: the perfect storm. Journal of Caffeine Research, 1(3). 153-162.
- Fritz, B. M., Companion, M., & Boehm II, S. L. (2014). ‘Wired’, yet intoxicated: modeling binge caffeine and alcohol co-consumption in the mouse. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 38(8). 2269-2278.
- Attwood, A. S. (2012). Caffeinated alcohol beverages: a public health concern. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 47(4). 370-371.
- Reissig, C. J., Strain, E. C., & Griffiths, R. R. (2009). Caffeinated energy drinks- a growing problem. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 99(1-3). 1-10.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. What is a standard drink? National Institute of Health.
- Hill, K. P. (2015). Medical marijuana for treatment of chronic pain and other medical and psychiatric problems: a clinical review. JAMA, 313(24). 2474-2483.
- Kramer, J. L. (2015). Medical marijuana for cancer. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 65(2). 109-122.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. Drug Fact Sheet: Marijuana.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Drug Abuse Warning Network, 2011: National Estimates of Drug-Related Emergency Department Visits. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 13-4760, DAWN Series D-39. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2013.
- Patton, G. C., Coffey, C., Carlin, J. B., Degenhardt, L., Lynskey, M., & Hall, W. (2002). Cannabis use and mental health in young people: cohort study. BMJ, 325. 1195–1198.
- Volkow, N. D., Baler, R. D., Compton, W. M., & Weiss, S. R. B. (2014). Adverse health effects of marijuana use. New England Journal of Medicine, 370(23). 2219-2227.