by James J. Galligan, Ph.D., Associate Chair,
Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology

There has been a recent surge in reports of use and abuse of bath salts as psychoactive drugs that provide a cheap and easily accessible “high” (see for example: ‘Bath Salts’ A Growing Drug Problem, Officials Say‘).

There are many bath salts provided by different commercial suppliers and many of these products contain mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone.  Subjects abusing these products have reported psychedelic experiences and amphetamine-like stimulant responses (see links below).

Abusers have also reported episodes of self-mutilation while under the influence of these substances.  There is now a growing movement to ban mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone but the Food and Drug Administration reports that it will take sometime before the regulations can be developed and implemented.

What are mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) and how do they produce their psychostimulant effects?

Mephedrone (4-methylmethcathinone) is derived from cathionine, the active ingredient in the African Khat plant (SpringerLink – Psychopharmacology, Online First™).  Although mephedrone is a relatively recent addition to the drug of abuse portfolio in the U.S. it has been popular for sometime in the United Kingdom.  Cathionine and mephedrone have amphetamine-like effects on the brain and the peripheral nervous system.  These effects include stimulation of release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain.  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain’s reward pathways while norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter in brain areas that control attention and appetite.  These effects account for the addictive (reward), stimulant and appetite suppressing properties of amphetamine-like drugs.  Mephedrone users also report rapid heart rate and this effect is caused by norepinephrine release from the nerves that supply the heart.  Norepinephrine speeds up heart rate.

bath salts

Methylenedioxypyrovalerone is contained in some bath salts - and is easily obtained via the internet

MDPV is also a cathionine derivative with pharmacological properties similar to mephedrone.  Both of these substances can be purchased over the internet, but recent analysis of these substances from different suppliers has revealed a wide range of purity.  This is part of the danger associated with mephedrone and MDPV abuse, the buyer is never quite sure what he/she is purchasing and ingesting.  Another substantial concern is that the interaction of these drugs with other drugs of abuse is unknown.  This is a problem because most drug abusers or polysubstance abusers.  Drug-drug interactions can cause unpredictable psychoactive or toxic responses.

So, clichés are clichés for a reason: let the buyer beware.

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