Using the designer drugs known as “bath salts” is like playing Russian roulette with your brain, according to an expert at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Michael H. Baumann, PhD, Chief of the Designer Drug Research Unit at NIDA’s Intramural Research Program, recently published a study that explains how bath salts cause dangerous effects in the brain.
“People using bath salts can’t be sure about what psychoactive chemicals are present in them, and studies have shown that ingredients on the label often are not present in the products,” he says.
The active ingredients in bath salts that have been identified thus far are structurally similar to cathinone, which is a naturally occurring stimulant found in the khat plant, explains Dr. Baumann. In a rodent study recently published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, he and his colleagues reported that synthetic cathinones disrupt the transport of the brain chemical dopamine, thereby causing large spikes in the amount of dopamine outside of nerve cells. Dopamine is implicated in the pleasurable effects of drugs, as well as their potential for abuse. “When a drug causes increases in dopamine, people will want to take that drug repeatedly,” he says. The study found a bath salt ingredient, MDPV, is 10 to 50 times more potent than cocaine in its ability to increase dopamine in the brain.
Emergency rooms around the country have reported cases of people taking bath salts who become psychotic, violent and delirious. These patients also may have a very high body temperature. Some people have died from bath salts use.
Data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers indicate that calls due to bath salts dropped from January to November 2012, though Dr. Baumann notes the data for the year are not yet complete. “If it is indeed the case that bath salts calls are declining, perhaps it is because of all the publicity about these substances being quite dangerous,” he says.
Dr. Baumann also notes government action may be playing an important role in the decrease in bath salts calls. In the fall of 2011, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced a temporary ban on three synthetic stimulants sold as bath salts—mephedrone, methylone and MDPV. The ban made it illegal to possess and sell these chemicals or the products that contain them. In July 2012, President Obama signed legislation that permanently bans a number of synthetic drugs including mephedrone and MDPV.
A troubling trend is the availability of newer, similar compounds that chemists are devising to replace the banned substances, Dr. Baumann observes. “This cat-and-mouse game is likely to continue,” he says. It is possible some of these newer compounds may no longer be called bath salts, and are thus not showing up in the poison control data.
Much is still not known about bath salts, such as how they interact with alcohol and other illicit drugs. Scientists also don’t know what happens when several different cathinone products are mixed, or the long-term effect of bath salts use.
“Bath salts are dangerous,” Dr. Baumann says. “We don’t know a lot about how they affect the body, and there is no quality control in their manufacture or packaging. There’s just no way of knowing what byproducts or toxic impurities are in these products.”
For the latest information about bath salts, visit the NIDA website.