Researchers Say Bath Salts Effect on Brain Similar to Cocaine

Bath Salts DEA


Many people are already aware of the danger of ingesting bath salts due to recent reports of people acting like crazed zombies. Several deaths have also been blamed on the bath salt mephedrone (4-methylmethcathinone or "meow-meow"). In the latest incident, a man high on bath salts stripped to his underwear and threatened to eat golfers at an Atlanta golf course. The man reportedly told the golfers, "I'll eat you. I don't want to eat you but I will."

The use of the synthetic stimulants collectively known as "bath salts" have gained popularity among recreational drug users over the last five years. Until recently, the stimulants had been readily available and unrestricted via the Internet and at convenience stores. They were also virtually unregulated until recently. In October 2011, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration placed mephedrone on Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act for one year, pending further study. President Obama signed into law legislation passed by Congress to permanently ban the sale of bath salts in the U.S. on July 9th.

New research shows that the drug is not only dangerous, but addictive as well. C.J. Malanga, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology, pediatrics and psychology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, has conducted a new study that offers compelling evidence for the first time that mephedrone, like cocaine, does have potential for abuse and addiction.

Malanga says, "The effects of mephedrone on the brain's reward circuits are comparable to similar doses of cocaine. As expected our research shows that mephedrone likely has significant abuse liability."

A report of the study was published here in the journal Behavioural Brain Research. The report's first author and MD/PhD student at UNC J. Elliott Robinson points out that mephedrone and other potentially addictive stimulants "inappropriately activate brain reward circuits that are involved in positive reinforcement. These play a role in the drug 'high' and compulsive drug taking."

The bath salts study, conducted on laboratory mice, used intracranial self-stimulation (ICSS), a technique developed in the 1950s that can measure a drug's ability to activate reward circuits. In ICSS studies, animals are trained to perform a behavioral task, such as spinning a wheel, to receive a reward: direct stimulation of the brain pathways involved in reward perception. During the study, adult animals were implanted with brain stimulating electrodes. Measures of their wheel spinning effort were made before, during and after they received various doses of either mephedrone or cocaine. As was expected, cocaine increased the ability of mice to be rewarded by self-stimulation. The researchers found that mephedrone also increased the ability of mice to be rewarded by self-stimulation.

Malanga says, "One of the unique features of ICSS is that all drugs of abuse, regardless of how they work pharmacologically, do very similar things to ICSS: they make ICSS more rewarding. Animals work harder to get less of it [ICSS] when we give them these drugs. And what we found, which is new, is that mephedrone does the same thing. It increases the rewarding potency of ICSS just like cocaine does."

Photo: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)

Posted on July 23, 2012

More from Science Space & Robots