Designer street drugs called bath salts are highly addictive and cause hyperactivity, rapid heart rate, and high blood pressure, according to an illuminating study on two substances published earlier this week.
Bath salts represent an increasingly problematic segment of the nation's battle with substance use and dependence. The number of calls to the American Association of Poison Control Centers from people sickened by bath salts skyrocketed from 303 in 2010 to 6,072 last year. The new study, performed on animals, provides a scientific look at how the chemicals impact the brain. The research is important for public health and substance-abuse professionals trying to prevent more people from experimenting with the drugs and helping those who become addicted.
"The fundamental problem with the whole bath salts phenomenon is we don't know anything about the pharmacological effects and possible toxic effects of these substances," Dr. Michael Baumann, the lead author of the study and a staff scientist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told TakePart. "Where do they interact in the brain and in the periphery? From a public health perspective, we really need to know what those risks might be."
Bath salts represent a class of designer drugs that began showing up on U.S. streets about three years ago. Sold as a synthetic powder, the drugs are available online and in drug paraphernalia stores. Besides the term bath salts, the drugs are known by names such as "Ivory Wave," "Purple Wave," "Red Dove," "Blue Silk," "Zoom," "Bloom," "Cloud Nine," "Ocean Snow," "Lunar Wave," "Vanilla Sky," "White Lightning," "Scarface," and "Hurricane Charlie," according to NIDA. The drugs are inhaled, swallowed, injected, or snorted.
Chemically, bath salts resemble naturally occurring substances called cathinones, which have a chemical structure similar to amphetamines, although the effects of the synthetic substances on the brain is far different from what nature intended with cathinones.
In July, President Obama signed a law banning known versions of the drugs, including those that contain several popular active ingredients known as methylone, mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV. But street chemists continue to tweak the concoctions to produce new versions that escape Drug Enforcement Agency classification.
"We have a whole new wave of second-generation or replacement cathinones," Baumann says. "MDPV, mephedrone and methylone are being replaced. [Manufacturers] change the structure of the molecules ever so slightly. So this is a formidable problem."
The new study, published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, explains why users should fear the effects of bath salts. Like the drug MDMA—or Ecstasy—the active compounds in bath salts examined in the study attach to chemical transporters on the surface of some neurons. This leads to increases in the brain chemicals serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, and prolongs the effects of dopamine and norepinephrine in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.
This is key because elevated levels of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens—the area of the brain activated by the desire for pleasure or reward—plays a big role in the development of drug dependence, according to numerous studies.
"Something that causes this burst of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens is going to be an addictive substance," Baumann says. "Much less of it will give you a big effect."
The result for people high on bath salts is symptoms of agitation, combative behavior, hallucinations, psychosis, hyperthermia, and increased heart rate and blood pressure. One bath salt substance was found to be at least 10 times more potent than cocaine in its effects on increased heart rate and blood pressure.
The study also showed that the lab rats with access to the chemicals continually press a lever to keep self-administering the drug—evidence of drug dependence.
"They all show this propensity for self-administration, which indicates for humans that [the drugs] probably have high abuse liability," Baumann says.
Much more research is needed to understand the drugs' impact on the brain. Part of the problem, Baumann says, is that street chemists can add any number of substances to the drugs, adding to their potential toxicity.
"The allure here is they are cheaper to get," he says. "The other thing is they are not detected by routine drug screens. But users are definitely playing Russian Roulette with drugs ."
Question: What else should the government do to keep bath salts off the streets? Let us know in the comments.
Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California. She is the author of three books on health and science subjects.