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UNE pharmacologist Karen Houseknecht works to help solve the complicated problem of 'bath salts'

October 26, 2012

In 2009 "bath salts," the street name for a family of substituted cathinone drugs, were largely unknown in Maine. 

In the three years since, these so-called designer drugs of abuse have become a national public health problem.

In much publicized cases, users of these drugs have exhibited bizarre and dangerous behaviors, and calls to the American Association of Poison Control Centers regarding bath salts have risen from 304 in 2010 to 2,362 so far in 2012. In July 2012, President Obama signed a federal law banning the sale of bath salts and cathinone derivative compounds.

Professor Karen Houseknecht, Ph.D., a pharmacology and drug metabolism expert in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of New England College of Pharmacy, has closely studied bath salts since they first appeared in the U.S., and is among the first researchers to publish on the subject. 

Her presentation at the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C., last November attracted hundreds of interested colleagues.

Houseknecht's work is the product of a vibrant, multidisciplinary collaboration with researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA. The team's third academic paper on bath salts in less than a year appears in the current edition of the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence and represents an ongoing multidisciplinary collaboration (see full citations).

Houseknecht is also a faculty member in the UNE Center for Excellence in the Neurosciences. Her research lies at the interface of neuroscience and endocrinology/metabolism. Whether studying drugs of abuse or atypical antipsychotic drugs, Houseknecht focuses on the pharmacology underlying mechanisms of action and mechanisms of adverse events (safety), particularly central nervous system regulation of whole-body energy metabolism.

She explains that bath salts represent a family of related chemicals, including 4-methylmethcathinone (mephedrone) and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV). Each chemical is structurally slightly different from each other - yielding differences in pharmacology - and allowing manufacturers of the chemicals to evade law enforcement attempts to crack down on their illegal sale.

In fact, Maine is extending the list of illegal bath salts substances to include more compounds. Houseknecht's collaborative research team is focusing on the mechanisms of how these chemicals work, how quickly the chemicals enter the brain, and how they affect human behavior.

Unique Pharmacology of Bath Salts

Together with Scripps Research behavioral pharmacologist Michael Taffe, Ph.D. (senior author) and chemist Tobin Dickerson, Ph.D., Houseknecht has identified the unique pharmacology of these chemicals and determined how the body metabolizes the drugs.

She says, "Bath salts are a really complicated problem with significant public health and law enforcement relevance. These drugs have complex effects; they do not 'simply' act like stimulants such as cocaine, but also appear to have hallucinogenic properties. These effects will vary depending upon which cathinone compound(s) are in a given preparation of bath salts, and represent significant abuse potential. They are the new face of designer illicit drug use in the U.S."

Informing Physicians and Law Enforcement Officials

Houseknecht believes the results of this research collaboration may be used to better inform physicians who are seeing and treating a rising number of patients appearing in hospital Emergency Rooms, as well as law enforcement officers who encounter bath salts users who may exhibit violent behaviors.

Published Research

Huang , Aarde , Angrish , Houseknecht , Dickerson , and Taffe, "Contrasting effects of d-methamphetamine, 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, 3,4 methylenedioxypyrovalerone, and 4-methylmethcathinone on wheel activity in rats," Drug and Alcohol Dependence (2012), Article

Wright, Angrish, Aarde, Barlow, Buczynski, Creehan, Vandewater, Parson, Houseknecht, Dickerson, and Taffe, "Effect of ambient temperature on the thermoregulatory and locomotor stimulant effects of 4-methylmethcathinone in wistar and sprague-dawley rats," PLOS ONE (2012, Volume 7, Issue 8).

Miller, Creehan, Angrish, Barlow, Houseknecht, Dickerson, Taffe, "Changes in ambient temperature differentially alter the thermoregulatory cardiac and locomotor stimulant effects of 4-methylmethcathinone (mephedrone)," Drug and Alcohol Dependence (2012). Article

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