24 Apr Rodents Quickly Become Addicted to Bath Salts
“Bath salts” is a term that scientists and laypeople commonly use for a group of substances, called synthetic cathinones, which have recently appeared in the popular consciousness as a potential source for serious drug abuse. Many of these substances, including a fairly widespread bath salt called MDPV (3,4-Methylenedioxypyrovalerone), are outlawed under current U.S. drug laws. In a study published in March 2014 in the journal Addiction Biology, researchers from two American institutions explored the potential of MDPV to produce the physical and behavioral changes that typify people affected by diagnosable substance addiction.
The term “bath salts” is a misnomer. However, it has gained popularity because the manufacturers of synthetic cathinones initially tried to hide their activities by marketing their drugs online and in various brick-and-mortar stores as bath products. Chemically speaking, synthetic cathinones are derived from substances found in khat, a stimulant plant that grows naturally in northeast Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula. They highly stimulate the body’s central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and produce drug effects that closely resemble those associated with the use of methamphetamine or the stimulant-hallucinogen MDMA (Ecstasy, Molly). Known potential risks of using bath salts/synthetic cathinones include serious increases in blood pressure and heart rate, convulsions, psychotic mental states, severe anxiety, uncharacteristically aggressive behavior, highly elevated body temperatures and death. MDPV is probably the most widely used bath salt ingredient. Other possible ingredients include substances called pyrovalerone and mephedrone. Federal law has banned the sale and use of MDPV and several other synthetic cathinones since 2012.
In the context of substance use, the term addiction is typically used to describe certain long-term brain changes and serious behavioral dysfunctions found in people who have developed a physical dependence on alcohol or a range of drugs or medications. However, since 2013, the guidelines widely used in the U.S. do not contain separate references to substance addiction. Instead, they contain references to substance use disorder, a condition that incorporates the symptoms of physically dependent addiction and the symptoms of non-dependent substance abuse. People who abuse or get addicted to stimulant drugs or medications such as cocaine, amphetamine or methamphetamine typically qualify for a diagnosis of a subtype of substance use disorder known as stimulant use disorder. Since bath salts have stimulant properties roughly equivalent to those found in other stimulant drugs of abuse, one could reasonably assume that a person suffering from the negative consequences of bath salt use would also potentially qualify for a stimulant use disorder diagnosis.
Assessing the Potential for Addiction
In the study published in Addiction Biology, researchers from Arizona State University and the Research Triangle Institute International used laboratory experiments on rats to assess the potential of the bath salt MDPV to produce the brain and behavioral alterations that typify substance addiction. The rats involved in the study were freely allowed to access MDPV for short or long spans of time during two 10-day periods of time. The researchers compared the brain and behavioral changes in these rats to the changes found in a second group of rats that received methamphetamine instead of MDPV.
After reviewing their findings, the researchers concluded that the rats given access to MDPV willingly used the drug repeatedly, whether they received small doses or large doses at any particular time. They also concluded that, when the supplied dose of MDPV passed a certain threshold, the rats started escalating their drug use in a pattern that strongly suggests the onset of uncontrolled substance addiction. In addition, the researchers concluded that the rats repeatedly exposed to MDPV underwent changes in their brain chemistry that commonly appear in people addicted to methamphetamine and a host of other known addictive substances.
Significance and Considerations
Based on their findings, the authors of the study published in Addiction Biology concluded that the bath salt MDPV does appear to be capable of triggering cases of substance addiction (and substance abuse) in people who use it repeatedly over time. Further research will be needed to confirm this potential in human beings. Future researchers will also need to keep exploring the potential for abuse and addiction associated with other types of synthetic cathinones.
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