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Addiction Recovery Research Center

Fralin Biomedical Research Institute

2 Riverside Circle

Roanoke, VA  24016

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Phone: 540-315-0205

Email: iqrr@vtc.vt.edu

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John Pastor, FBRI Director of Communications

Phone: 540-526-2222

Email: jdpastor@vt.edu

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By: Anvitha Metpally

WHAT ARE "DESIGNER DRUGS"?

We often associate the word “designer” with articles of clothing and accessories. Designer goods are great for making a statement but often come at a steep price. Recently something potentially fatal and perilous has adopted the term “designer” as well – designer drugs. Designer drugs are artificially made by altering the chemical composition of drugs that are derived from plants. Like all other drugs, designer drugs are harmful not only to bodily health, but also mental health. However, designer drugs are especially dangerous since the combinations used to create them are untested, and the long-term health effects to the users are unknown. 


Designer drugs can be categorized as opioids, stimulants, hallucinogens and dissociative. Some examples include:

  • “Spice” (synthetic marijuana)

  • Ecstasy/“Molly” (synthetic psychoactive drug similar to amphetamines and mescaline)

  • Bath Salts (often contains one or more synthetic chemicals related to cathinone)

    • Methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) (found in bath salts)

    • Mephedrone (found in bath salts)

    • Methylone (found in bath salts)

  • 2C Family (synthetic hallucinogens)

  • Krokodil (synthetic morphine derivative; heroin substitute)
     

Designer drugs differ in the way they metabolize, potentially allowing for greater abuse, which then leads to transient or permanent changes in the brain. 

EFFECTS ON BRAIN STRUCTURE AND FUNCTION

The human brain is responsible for making decisions, maintaining homeostasis, higher-order thinking, motor function, and speech. Although the brain is a very powerful organ, it can drastically be altered, morphologically and chemically, if an individual engages in maladaptive behaviors such as smoking, excessive drinking or drug use. 

Drugs interfere with neuronal communication by either imitating neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemical messengers, or by overstimulating the reward circuit of the brain. Drugs typically interact with the regions of the brain that are associated with pleasure and reward. For example, if you were to win the lottery, the brain’s pleasure center would be activated, causing dopamine to be released. Natural rewards like this allow the dopaminergic cells to stop firing after some time. Excess dopamine is then removed by a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). On the other hand, when alcohol, nicotine, opioids and designer drugs are introduced to the body, a more potent dose of dopamine is released, but GABA does not function properly, therefore allowing excess dopamine to fire continuously at the brain’s receptors. With repeated drug use, synaptic activity decreases and neural connections are rewired. 

The brain’s morphology and function can change immediately after drugs are introduced to the body, but these changes do not revert back as quickly when an individual stops using. However, the brain is an amazing healing machine that bounces back after some time and rewires its network. With abstinence, a strong support system, proper resources, and a healthy lifestyle, the brain has the potential to support the best version of you! 

References:

1. Project Know. (2018, November 07). New and Designer Drugs. Retrieved July 30, 2019, from https://www.projectknow.com/designer-drugs/

2. What Are Designer Drugs: Side Effects and Withdrawal Symptoms. (2019, June 26). Retrieved July 30, 2019, from https://novarecoverycenter.com/trending-street-drugs/what-are-designer-drugs/