Synthetic stimulants known as "bath salts," linked to a growing number of bizarre and violent attacks across the U.S., act on the brain in ways similar to cocaine and are highly addictive, a new study has found.
Bath salts have gained popularity among recreational drug users over the last five years, largely because they are easy to buy on the Internet and at convenience stores, and makers have been able to stay one step ahead of law enforcement officials and regulators.
Users often engage in compulsive drug taking and several deaths have been blamed on the bath salt mephedrone – 4-methylmethcathinone, also known as "meow-meow." Last October, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration labeled mephedrone a controlled substance for one year, pending further study. In July, President Obama signed into law legislation passed by Congress to permanently ban the sale of bath salts in the U.S.
"Basically, the DEA was saying we don't know enough about these drugs to know how potentially dangerous they could be, so we're going to make them maximally restricted, gather more data, and then come to a more reasoned decision as to how we should classify these compounds," said Dr. C.J. Malanga, associate professor of neurology, pediatrics and psychology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
Now, results of a new study led by Malanga offer compelling evidence that mephedrone, like cocaine, does have potential for abuse and addiction.
"The effects of mephedrone on the brain's reward circuits are comparable to similar doses of cocaine," he said. "As expected our research shows that mephedrone likely has significant abuse liability."
The study, which was based on laboratory studies of mice and published online in the journal Behavioral Brain Research, found mephedrone and other potentially addictive bath salts stimulants "inappropriately activate brain reward circuits that are involved in positive reinforcement. These play a role in the drug 'high' and compulsive drug taking."
Malanga said the study supports the idea that mephedrone and drugs like it may have significant addiction potential, "and justifies the recent legislation to maintain maximum restriction to their access by the Food and Drug Administration."
The study was funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.