Mephedrone, a key ingredient in the designer-drug mix sold as "bath salts" or as other substances, induces methamphetamine-like cravings in rats.
But mephedrone isn't exactly like meth, cocaine, ecstasy (MDMA), or other new designer drugs, according to rat studies led by pharmacologist Annette E. Fleckenstein, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Utah.
It has its own unique combination of effects and toxicities:
- -Like meth but unlike ecstasy, rats quickly develop a craving for mephedrone and will keep pressing a lever in order to get more.
- -Like meth, mephedrone increases brain levels of dopamine.
- -Like ecstasy, mephedrone increases brain levels of serotonin.
- -Like ecstasy, repeat doses of mephedrone damages the brain's ability to respond to serotonin (although human users of bath salts frequently binge, while ecstasy users usually don't).
- -Like both ecstasy and meth, mephedrone causes the body to overheat.
"Mephedrone is a unique psychostimulant of abuse that shares pharmacological properties similar to, and yet distinct from, both meth and MDMA," Fleckenstein and colleagues conclude. "Its ability to cause subjective effects resembling MDMA reportedly likely contributes to its abuse. However, its ability to cause dopamine release greater than MDMA may be particularly problematic in that, in comparison to MDMA, this drug hay have enhanced abuse liability more resembling dopamine-releasing agents such as meth."
Bath Salts, Plant Food, Decorative Sand, and Toy Cleaner
Mephedrone is sold as "bath salts" or as other innocuous products in an effort to sidestep drug laws, DEA Special Agent Gary Boggs tells WebMD.
"In order to escape law enforcement scrutiny, products are labeled 'not for human consumption,' but they know full well it is intended for that," Boggs says. "The federal analog statutes let us prosecute someone selling a specific analog of a controlled substance, but it has to be similar -- chemically similar and pharmacologically similar -- and intended for human consumption. ... So the veiled attempt is to put these things on the market as something they are not."
In addition to being called bath salts, mephedrone has also been sold as plant food, decorative sand, and even as toy cleaner. It goes by a variety of brand names. Two very popular ones are Ivory Wave and Vanilla Sky; others include Purple Wave, Red Dove, Blue Silk, Zoom, Bloom, Cloud Nine, Ocean Snow, Lunar Wave, White Lightning, Scarface, and Hurricane Charlie.
Mephedrone has never been approved for human consumption -- hence the initial studies in rats -- nor are these illicit products made under the kind of good manufacturing practices necessary for legal drugs, supplements, and foods.
Mephedrone is a so-called designer drug. It's a man-made derivative of the psychostimulant cathinone, which comes from the plant called khat.
Bath salts and similar substances are a growing problem. As of July 31, U.S. poison control centers had received 4,137 calls about bath salt "exposures." In all of 2010, there were only 303 such calls.
Last May, the Michigan health department reported a surge in emergency-room visits from people who had swallowed, snorted, or injected bath salts. Seventeen of the patients were hospitalized; one was dead on arrival.
Several states already have introduced legislation to ban sale of bath-salt products, but the substances remain available via online sellers.
"I would like to urge parents, teachers, and the public at large to be aware of the potential dangers associated with the use of these drugs and to exercise a judicious level of vigilance that will help us deal with this problem most effectively," Nora D. Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says in a news release.
Fleckenstein and colleagues report their findings in the online edition of the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.