Drugs have a habit of making their way from our bodies into the environment: they’ve frequently been found in waste water, drinking water, and rivers (not to mention on dollar bills). But they could also be rising into the air, and a new study suggests their aerial concentrations could give scientists a clue to what, exactly, is happening on the ground below. Following up on earlier research showing that cocaine was present in the air above the cities of Taranto and Rome, Italian researchers at the Institute of Atmospheric Pollution Research in Rome took about 60 samples of air in various regions and tested for a number of contaminants, including cocaine, cannabinoids (chemicals found in marijuana), and more common pollutants, like ozone and hydrocarbons. When they looked to see whether there was a correlation between cocaine concentration and addicts’ requests for treatment in particular geographical areas, they found a very strong relationship. Weaker correlations existed between cocaine concentration and police seizures of cocaine and concentration and seizure of all kinds of illicit substances.
The team is excited about the possibility of using aerial cocaine concentration to get a sense of drug use levels, a notoriously slippery thing to measure, and possibly other activities that sometimes occur in tandem with drug use, like robberies. However, their approach didn’t turn up any significant correlations between crime-related activities and cannabinoids, which is interesting—what does that mean about the social correlates of marijuana use (or, alternatively, about the fraction of cannabinoids that actually make into the air)? If you’re worried about getting high from the air, it seems unlikely that concentrations are high enough to have an effect. But who knows—that’s a question that has yet to be addressed.
What’s the News: Researchers at the Scripps Research Institute have now created a vaccine that prevents a heroin high in rats. The vaccine, detailed in a recent study in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, stimulates antibodies that can stop not only heroin but also its derivative psychoactive compounds from reaching the brain.
Bath products never sounded so dangerous before. Two methamphetamine-like drugs that are being sold as mere “bath salts” have been linked to hallucinations and suicides, and lawmakers around the country are cracking down. Three states have already banned the substances, and this weekend Senator Charles Schumer announced that he’ll introduce a bill to outlaw the substances at the federal level.
“These so-called bath salts contain ingredients that are nothing more than legally sanctioned narcotics, and they are being sold cheaply to all comers, with no questions asked, at store counters around the country,” said Schumer, a New York Democrat. [Reuters]
The drugs, mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), can be snorted, injected, or smoked. They have no connection to real bath salts–the scented powders and crystals added to bath water for relaxation. The drugs are commercially labeled with such innocuous names as TranQuility, Blue Silk, and White Lightning, but authorities agree that the effects are anything but innocuous:
Psychotic reactions to snorting the “bath salts” reportedly led one woman to swing a machete at her 71-year-old mother in an attempt to behead her, Panama City Beach police said. Also, a man high on the brand Blue Silk tore up the backseat of a patrol car with his teeth after seven Bay County Sheriff’s Office deputies wrestled the crazed man into the cruiser, the agency said. [Los Angeles Times]
By combining a cocaine analog with part of a common cold virus, researchers have created a “cocaine vaccine” that tricks the body into attacking the drug, neutralizing its high-giving powers. It has only been tested in mice so far, but the results are good:
“Our very dramatic data shows that we can protect mice against the effects of cocaine, and we think this approach could be very promising in fighting addiction in humans,” study researcher Ronald Crystal, a professor of genetic medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, said in a statement. [LiveScience]
The immune system doesn’t typically react to cocaine in the blood stream–it’s too small and doesn’t contain the “markers” of an invader. To get the white blood cells to notice it, the researchers strapped it to something the immune system can detect–the outside parts of the virus. The researchers took the outer shell from an adenovirus, which causes some types of the common cold, and removed the parts of the virus that cause illness. Then they linked that recognizable viral shell to a stable molecule similar to cocaine (they also tried it with cocaine itself, the researchers say, but the more-stable analog produced better results).
When it comes to recreational drugs, many assume that most of the dangerous compounds that people get high on are illegal. But drug makers, dealers, and users know better. They are mining the scientific literature for psychoactive drugs, making them in kitchen labs, and selling them to users on the street. And though this poses a real risk for users, it’s perfectly legal.
Purdue University chemist David Nichols says he’s haunted by the knowledge that his scientific research has led to unsafe–and sometimes even deadly–drug use.
“It’s not like you took a gun and shot somebody because then you would know you’d been responsible,” he told the BBC, “but people were taking something that you had published and I was alerting them that this might be an active molecule.” [BBC News]
In an editorial in Nature, Nichols discusses how compounds he has developed are being used as street drugs, with no regards to their safety. Nichols researches compounds for Parkinson’s and schizophrenia and has worked on developing serotonin-regulating analogs of MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy) for use in depression. One of these analogs (called MTA) became a big hit on the streets in the late 1990s.
Without my knowledge, MTA was synthesized by others and made into tablets called, appropriately enough, ‘flatliners’. Some people who took them died. Now, any knowledgeable person who had carefully read our papers might have realized the danger of ingesting MTA…. It really disturbs me that [these people] have so little regard for human safety and human life that the scant information we publish is used by them to push ahead and market a product designed for human consumption. [Nature]
California’s Proposition 19, a November ballot initiative to legalize marijuana, has fueled the ongoing fight over the drug’s health risks. While that battle has a month to go, a new study out in the British Journal of Psychiatry this backs up the idea that pot’s cognitive impairment is all about the makeup of the marijuana you’re smoking.
Valerie Curran and colleagues studied 134 volunteers as those volunteers smoked from their private stashes in their homes. The scientists had their subjects take a series of cognitive tests, both high and sober. They then took a small portion of the pot to the lab for analysis.
Curran found striking differences in the chemical compositions of different users’ marijuana, and those differences appeared to play a large role in how well the smokers performed on the tests while high.
Hallucinogenic drugs are making a comeback–not among the restless youth of today, but among medical researchers. Doctors are increasingly testing illegal drugs like LSD, psychedelic mushrooms, and the party drug ketamine for beneficial effects, and are suggesting that these discredited drugs could have a place in modern medicine. The latest study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, found that the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms helped alleviate depression and anxiety in terminal cancer patients.
“This is a landmark study in many ways,” said Dr. Stephen Ross, clinical director of the Center of Excellence on Addiction at New York University‘s Langone Medical Center, who was not involved in the research. “This is the first time a paper like this has come out in a prestigious psychiatric journal in 40 years.” [Los Angeles Times]
The small pilot study included only a dozen volunteers, so the findings are far from conclusive. The volunteers ranged in age from 36 to 58; all had been diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer and had considerable anxiety as a result of their disease. Each patient had one session in which they were given psilocybin, the active ingredient of magic mushrooms, and another session when they were given a placebo that caused a physiological reaction–still, in most cases the patients could figure out if they’d been dosed or not. In all the sessions the patients were kept under supervision for six hours and were encouraged to lie in the dark while listening to music (no word from the researchers on whether Pink Floyd was provided).
Ketamine for bipolar disorder. LSD for depression. It’s been a busy month for psychedelic drugs in the laboratory, as several studies showed that these drugs typically used recreationally—and illegally—affect the brain in ways that could make them useful for treating mental illness.
First came a small study in the Archives of General Psychiatry that we covered earlier this month, in which scientists tested 18 patients who on average had tried seven kinds of drugs to treat their bipolar disorder. When the researchers gave them small doses of ketamine—a powerful anesthetic that people use recreationally for the hallucinogenic side effects—the patients’ depressive symptoms lessened within a matter of minutes.