Virginia Commonwealth University

Dangerous designer drug packs a one-two punch

Louis J. De Felice, Ph.D.
Louis J. De Felice, Ph.D.
Richard A. Glennon, Ph.D. Steve Negus, Ph.D.
Steve Negus, Ph.D.           Richard A. Glennon, Ph.D.

VCU research team studies effects of bath salts

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Hear the words “bath salts” and an image of a relaxing day at the spa may come to mind. But lately, the term has been in the news with a whole new connotation. Bath salts is the name for the latest synthetic drug that is characterized by strange, violent behaviors in those who take it.

Supported by a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Institute for Drug Abuse, researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University are studying the synthetic drug to understand its effect on the brain. Louis J. De Felice, Ph.D., professor of physiology and biophysics; Steve Negus, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and toxicology; and Richard A. Glennon, Ph.D., chairman of the School of Pharmacy’s Department of Medicinal Chemistry, have teamed up to combine their expertise to investigate bath salts.

How the brain works

To have an idea of how bath salts affect the brain, we need to know a little bit about how the brain works. The brain has about 100 billion nerve cells. A neuron is a nerve cell with a very specific function – it transmits information throughout the brain and body, allowing you to breathe, move and sense the world around you.

Neurotransmitters are the chemicals produced by the body to convey this information between neurons in the brain. Essentially, the cells are signaling one another, controlling your central nervous system.

One such neurotransmitter is dopamine, which is responsible for controlling movement, cognition, emotional responses and the ability to experience pleasure. When dopamine release is turned “on,” it elicits a sense of reward and pleasure by sending a chemical messenger to the receptor of other neurons. Once dopamine reaches the dopamine receptor site, it is transported back to the neuron to be “repackaged” and reused in the future. This process is called reuptake. When dopamine release is turned “off,” the neurotransmitter stops the signal and the good feeling is over.

Drug effects on the brain

Now let’s say someone takes a drug, amphetamine, for example. This man-made drug is commonly used as a stimulant and often referred to as “speed.” The chemical travels to the brain, enters nerve cells via the dopamine transporter and causes a release of dopamine. However, when the amphetamine signal is turned “off” by removing the amphetamine, the signal doesn’t completely stop. In essence, amphetamine makes the dopamine “misbehave,” saturating the brain and making its effects on the brain stronger and last longer than normal.

“We’ve discovered that after taking amphetamine, dopamine likely begins to act like amphetamine, keeping levels of dopamine in the brain at a higher than normal level. That’s startling. It’s not good,” said De Felice. “Amphetamine affects cognition, memory, locomotion and mood. Once inside nerve cells, amphetamine is converted into toxins that kill neurons.”

A drug like cocaine also affects dopamine by blocking the transporters, delaying the reuptake process. This also keeps high levels of dopamine in the brain.

A dangerous combination

Bath salts essentially combines the effects of amphetamine and cocaine. It is a concoction of mephedrone, a stimulant that works like amphetamine, releasing dopamine into the brain, and Methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV, which acts like cocaine by preventing dopamine from being reabsorbed back into the brain’s neurons.

“One component of bath salts is a stimulant, the other is a blocker – and also in some sense a stimulant – preventing reuptake. Even after one dose, it is reported that people can remain in an altered state for days,” explained De Felice. “It has an unusually persistent effect on people. It’s as if a person were to take methamphetamine and cocaine at the same time but staggered for maximum effect.”

MDPV binds itself to the transporter, but unlike cocaine, which eventually releases, it won’t let go and effectively “kills” the transporter. In other words, the research team has found that MDPV is essentially irreversible. “It remodels the central nervous system,” De Felice said.

Behaviors associated with someone on bath salts include extreme agitation, self abuse, feeling super human and taking their clothes off.

“We plan to study more about this super human feeling with someone who has taken bath salts. It could be due to an increased level in adrenaline,” said De Felice. “Future studies might also include studying brains of bath salts users by comparing dopamine levels via PET scans of users versus non users.”

The team has presented their findings from current research earlier this year at the 56th Annual Meeting of the Biophysical Society and submitted their work to leading journals for publication. They have also been featured on news programs and newspapers, including ABC NewsVoice of AmericaChristian Science Monitor and Medical Xpress.

“It’s very important to inform people about the dangers of using bath salts. Our research has shown that bath salts are likely not only addictive, but the effects to the central nervous system may be irreversible.”

For more information, watch this VCU OnTopic video on bath salts.