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This Is Your Brain on Bath Salts: A Chemistry Lover’s Guide to the Drug

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By Sam Schieren on June 13, 2012


Can you believe the real-life-zombie media blitz started only two and a half weeks ago? After the Maryland student who killed his roommate, then ate his heart and parts of his brain; the man from Lafayette Parish who attacked his neighbor, taking a bite out of his face; the now-infamous Rudy Eugene from Miami, who was shot and killed after an 18-minute munchfest on the face of a homeless man; and then the lame wannabe-zombie pranksters, we wondered how we, or anyone, could make it through the weekend without eating another human.

Obviously the zombie threat is a stupid made-up thing to put a happy face on the devastating consequences of mental illness and drug use. Several of the “zombies” were under the influence of psychoactive bath salts at the time of their gruesome attacks. In fact, just today, another strange case surfaced in upstate New York: A mother wildly attacked her child while high on the illegal synthetic drug. Bath salts are now front-and-center in the news.

With all of this buzz — both on the web and in the users’ brains — it begs the question, What in the world would prompt someone to self-administer this drug? And what the hell is this stuff, anyway?

The science behind the drug

Bath salts — referring to two particular substances, mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) — are psychoactive drugs related to khat, an organic stimulant found in the Middle East and East African countries. These drugs’ active ingredient, cathinone, is illegal in the United States, and classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. Cathinone is chemically similar to a number of amphetamines and induces the release of dopamine in the brain — bath salts’ main cause of stimulation.

While bath salts are classified as a psychoactive substance, they do not induce hallucinations. The face-eating was likely caused not by a bad trip, but by sleep deprivation and, perhaps, a hyperactive mind complicated by prior psychological issues.

A study published this past April in the scientific journal Neuropsychopharmacology compared Methadrone, one of the two types of bath salts, to ecstasy (MDMA). Their results showed the two drugs’ side effects had significant overlap, both acting as a substrate (binding agent) for enzymes in the brain that release dopamine and serotonin. Methadrone and MDMA were found to have a similar potency.

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The study also found that bath salts are a far weaker motor stimulant than ecstasy, resulting in fewer physical side effects. It warns, however, that further research is still needed. This was, after all, one lone study performed on the brains of rats (which, by the way, showed no cannibalistic tendencies while exposed to the drug).

Bath salts limit the reuptake of dopamine in the brain. When we’re on them, our mindmeats get flooded with an unlimited amount of happy chemicals. But, much like with ecstasy, this blast of dopamine can make the drug addictive.

There’s also no recommended dosage for the salts — sold at $20 to $25 a gram — which means users are very likely to overdo it — and mix it with other harmful and addictive amphetamines such as cocaine and ecstasy (MDMA).

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So … what’s it like to take bath salts?

One user on Erowid, an online library of information about psychoactive experiences, described in detail his first trial with the psychoactive salts. After snorting and swallowing a dose of salts at 6 p.m., he began to describe his state. Within an hour of consumption, he wrote, “Bodyload a chilled out stoned stimulation. Thoughts and memory becoming light, mindfulness and peace.” An hour later, he continued to elaborate: “Relaxation, a calm mix of stony body/mind stimulation, mindfulness. The mind feels a bit like how I imagine being 2–3 years old.”

After a couple hours, he pinpointed changes: “Interesting note, I am feeling a betterment in my ADHD. I can focus better.” By 8:00 a.m. the next morning, the user had still not slept, explaining, “I wrote a story of a life-changing experience I had one year ago, that I always wanted to get down on paper to a texting friend on the net. I am reminded by a person on the net to sleep now, and take the advice before I enter zombie-state. I have forgotten to eat properly. Water as needed. Sleepy time now.”

He remained restless and awake for the next 12 hours, writing his final log at 8:00 p.m., 26 hours after he had dosed, still no sleep.

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