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Psychosis & Effects of Designer/Synthetic Drugs on the Brain

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Using designer or synthetic drugs can increase your risk of experiencing drug-induced psychosis, which is characterized by delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, and profound agitation.

A number of designer/synthetic drugs are associated with dangerous side effects, including psychosis. This article reviews both designer/synthetic drugs and drug-induced psychosis. It also covers other neurological effects and risks associated with certain types of synthetic drug use, as well as how to get help if you or someone you know struggles with synthetic drug abuse.

Common Synthetic Drugs

Designer/synthetic drugs are substances that often are created to mimic the effects of other illegal drugs, although this is not always the case.1,2 When a drug is labeled as “synthetic,” it simply refers to the fact that it is man-made instead of naturally-occurring. There are over 300 known designer/synthetic drugs that law enforcement officials have encountered, but more are always being manufactured.1 Designer/synthetic drugs are typically sold at gas stations, convenience stores, smoke shops, novelty stores, and head shops, as well as online.1

Designer drugs can be extremely dangerous because in addition to mimicking the effects of other illegal drugs, their chemical components are often unknown and can vary from batch to batch.2 This means that you will likely not know what drugs and additives are contained in each dose or what effects each dose will have.2

Synthetic cannabinoids made in lab
Two of the more prevalent designer synthetic drugs are:

  • Synthetic Cannabinoids: Synthetic cannabinoids, such as Spice and K2, are also referred to as synthetic marijuana.2 These chemicals can be sprayed on dry, crushed up plant material and smoked.2 They also come in liquid form that is then vaporized and inhaled.2 Short-term side effects can include hallucinations, paranoia, and increased heart rate.
  • Synthetic Cathinones: Synthetic cathinones, which typically contain a number of chemicals related to cathinone, such as methylone, 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone, and mephedrone, are more commonly known as bath salts.4 They are often marketed as cheap alternatives to other stimulants, such as cocaine and methamphetamine.4 They can be swallowed, snorted, smoked, or injected.4 Possible adverse effects may include violent behaviors, panic attacks, hallucinations, and even death.4 There is also the risk of contracting infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis from using shared needles.3

Man taking tabs of lsd
Other common, illicit synthetic drugs include:

  • Phencyclidine (PCP): PCP produces mind-altering, hallucinogenic effects.5 It can be snorted, taken orally, or smoked by applying the powdered form of the drug to a leafy substance, such as marijuana, oregano, or mint.5 The powder dissolves easily in water or alcohol, so PCP is sometimes available in liquid form; marijuana or tobacco cigarettes can be dipped in PCP liquid and then smoked.5 Some serious adverse effects include delusions, hallucinations, seizures, dissociation or detachment from the environment, and death.3
  • LSD: LSD is a powerful hallucinogen that is manufactured from the lysergic acid component of a plant fungus (hence the street name “acid”).3 It is most commonly ingested through capsules, tablets, or blotters, which are paper squares that have absorbed liquid LSD.3 It can cause distortions of reality, paranoia, hallucinations, and rapid swings of emotion, amongst other side effects.3
  • MDMA: MDMA, more commonly known as Ecstasy or Molly, is unique because it is chemically similar to both hallucinogens and stimulants.6 MDMA is a powder that is often sold in capsule form.6 Although individuals use the drug for its enhancement of sensory perceptions and lowering of inhibitions, it can impact normal body temperature regulation which, in some cases may be associated with injury to certain organs, such as heart, kidneys, and liver, and even death.6

The designer drugs listed above all come with potentially-severe side effects beyond those mentioned, with one of the especially concerning consequences being drug-induced psychosis.

Drug-Induced Psychosis

Psychosis involves losing touch with reality. During a psychotic episode, a person may have a difficult time determining what is real and what is not.7 They may experience paranoia, delusions, or false beliefs, and/or hallucinations, such as hearing or seeing things that aren’t there.2,7 They may also exhibit incoherent speech, inappropriate behaviors, and impaired memory, attention, and planning.7,9 While these symptoms are often associated with mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia, they can also be induced by certain types of synthetic drug use.

Drug-induced psychosis may include paranoia, hallucinations, delusions, extreme anxiety, severe depression, profound agitation, and/or violent behavior.2,4 These symptoms may last several hours, but they may be persistent as well.6,8 Use of synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones, PCP, LSD, and MDMA have all been linked with symptoms of psychosis.2,4,8,9

It’s important to be aware that these symptoms can occur even if the person using synthetic drugs has no prior history of psychotic symptoms.10 There is no safe way to use designer drugs, such as Spice, K2, or bath salts. Each time you abuse them, you run the risk of experiencing psychosis and its associated dangers.

What Are the Dangers?

When someone is experiencing psychosis, they have lost touch with reality. People who are in a state of psychosis resulting from synthetic drug abuse may pose a danger to themselves and those around them. They may exhibit erratic and unpredictable behaviors, such as:

  • Self-harm.
  • Suicide attempts.
  • Assault.
  • Violence.
  • Theft.

They may put themselves in potentially fatal situations, such as:

  • Running out into the middle of traffic.
  • Jumping off of buildings.
  • Driving a car.

Additionally, when someone is disconnected from reality, they may be unable to call for help or seek medical attention when needed. Therefore, it is a very real and terrifying possibility that these behaviors could ultimately lead to injury or death. Psychosis isn’t the only potential risk of synthetic drug abuse. These drugs negatively affect the brain in several serious ways.

Other Effects On the Brain

While the psychotic symptoms are very concerning, there are other psychological and neurological effects associated with designer drug use to consider as well. Some of them include:2,4,5,6,8

  • Memory loss.
  • Flashbacks, or the re-experiencing of events that occurred while under the influence.
  • “Bad trips,” or frightening or unpleasant experiences.
  • Synesthesia, or mixing of the senses.
  • Attention problems.
  • Difficulty with speech or thought.
  • Sleep disturbances or insomnia.
  • Negative impact on hormones associated with normal development and growth.
  • Delay of the learning process in teens.
  • Confusion.
  • Panic attacks and extreme anxiety.
  • Severe depression.
  • Suicidal ideation.
  • Seizures.
  • Coma.

Clearly, synthetic drug use can be risky and even life-threatening. However, if you or someone you know abuses synthetic drugs, professional treatment is available.

Managing Psychosis & Getting Sober

If you or someone you know uses synthetic drugs, it is important to be aware that the best way to prevent psychosis, or any of the other serious risks associated with their use, is to stop using these drugs. However, it can be very difficult to quit using on your own. This is why it is so important to seek professional support and guidance during this process.
woman talking to doctor about drug rehab options
Detox, although not typically necessary for many stimulants and hallucinogens, can be beneficial in helping a person withdraw comfortably and safely. If you are concerned that someone is in danger because they are exhibiting psychotic features or experiencing a psychotic episode, you should call 911 immediately and remain with the person until emergency personnel arrive. Within the hospital setting, the staff will manage psychosis with medical and psychological care and oversight. Detox may occur in the hospital setting, with the aid of medications, such as a benzodiazepine or anti-psychotic medication, to calm an anxious or agitated individual and manage the psychotic symptoms.10

Once the person is stabilized and the synthetic drug has been eliminated from their system, they may transition into a comprehensive drug addiction treatment program. Rehab can help you refrain from relapsing and putting yourself at risk of psychosis and other complications. There are a wide variety of substance abuse treatment options. Inpatient programs require that the individual lives at the facility for the duration of the program while receiving a range of interventions, such as group counseling and individual therapy. Many people prefer the structure of an inpatient program so that they can focus on their recovery without outside distractions. Outpatient programs provide the person with the freedom to live at home while recovering from a synthetic drug addiction. The people who are typically best suited for outpatient rehab are those who have a strong support system and high motivation to get clean.

Addiction treatment programs can help you connect with others in healthy ways, explore underlying triggers and problematic behaviors that lead to drug abuse, and guide you towards healthier ways of coping. Ultimately, addiction treatment can lead to successful recovery and to you living a sober, healthy, and happy life.

Sources

  1. U.S. Department of Justice: Drug Enforcement Administration Diversion Control Division. (N.D.) About Synthetic Drugs.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Synthetic Cannabinoids.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Commonly Abused Drugs Charts.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Synthetic Cathinones (“Bath Salts”).
  5. National Drug Intelligence Center. (2006). PCP Fast Facts.
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). MDMA (Ecstasy/Molly).
  7. National Institute of Mental Health. (N.D.) What is Psychosis?
  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016).
  9. Ham, S., Kim, T.K., Chung, S., & Im, HI. (2017). Drug Abuse and Psychosis: New Insights into Drug-Induced Psychosis. Experimental Neurobiology, 26(1), 11–24.
  10. Roberto, A.J., Lorenzo, A., Li, K.J., Young, J., Mohan, A., Pinnaka, S., & Lapidus, K.A.B. (2016). Case Report: First-Episode of Synthetic Cannabinoid-Induced Psychosis in a Young Adult, Successfully Managed with Hospitalization and Risperidone. Case Reports in Psychiatry, 2016, 1–4.

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