In 2012, a new type of street drug nicknamed “bath salts” caused shock waves around the world after footage emerged of a Miami man – apparently high on one of these substances – ripping off his clothes and eating the face of another man. More recently, a variety of bath salts called flakka has surfaced in Broward County, Florida, with media reports claiming that the drug has now made its way to New York. Yet while the stories surrounding this so-called “zombie drug” are spectacularly grim, it’s important to get a handle on the science behind the substance in order to separate the facts from the myths.
The term “bath salts” describes a new group of synthetic chemicals resembling a natural stimulant called cathinone. Traffickers and dealers sometimes carry these white powders in bags labeled “bath salts – not for human consumption,” in order to disguise the drug and avoid being caught. Flakka – or alpha-pyrrolidinopentiophenone (PVP) – is one of these synthetic cathinones.
Its consumption has been linked to a range of disturbing effects, with some reports suggesting it gives users “superhuman strength.” According to Dr. Michael Baumann of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), this is partially caused by the way in which the drug blocks the norepinephrine transporter proteins in the brain. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that mobilizes the body for action by increasing heart rate and blood pressure. The function of transporter proteins is to “vacuum up” any unused norepinephrine in order to terminate its effects, although when they get blocked by drugs like flakka, these effects can’t be regulated.
“Once people are above a certain threshold with this drug they become very agitated and aggressive,” Baumann told IFLScience. “In many cases they’re hallucinating – they get persecution delusions, and so they think they’re fighting for their lives,” which may explain the deranged violence and unusual strength that users apparently exhibit. “Are they agitated and aggressive? Yes. Superhuman? Probably not – I think this could be some embellishment.”
Flakka also blocks dopamine transporter proteins. Dopamine is involved in the activation of the brain’s reward centers, and is often released in response to pleasurable stimuli. Many addictive drugs work by increasing the effects of dopamine, yet according to Baumann, flakka is far stronger in this respect than most narcotics. This is based on studies which showed that rats required 10 times less flakka than cocaine in order to become addicted.
It’s this immense strength of flakka that Baumann says makes it so dangerous. “If someone is accustomed to doing a line of cocaine of a certain size and they did a similar line of this stuff, it would be like doing ten lines of cocaine,” he says. This can cause symptoms like psychosis, hallucinations, and agitation.
However, Baumann insists that these are “high dose effects,” and that “we don’t know very much about what the low dose effects of PVP are because those people don’t show up in the hospital.” Equally little is known about the drug’s long-term dangers since no clinical data has yet been collected on the subject. “So far all we have are anecdotal reports,” he says. “We’ve been trying for years to get a clinical study but it’s not something that’s embraced, for obvious reasons.”
Overall, it’s probably too early to start attaching labels like “zombie drug” to flakka, since clinical justification for this is lacking. However, it’s clear that the drug is seriously bad news, and while scientists are as yet unsure of its long-term effects, they’ll no doubt be hoping it doesn’t hang around long enough for them to find out.