Stimulants raise the general level of activity in the nervous system. The heart rate increases, nerve cells fire more easily, and a person reacts more quickly or intensely to challenging situations. Just as heroin mimics the actions of the body's natural painkillers, stimulants mimic the function of the adrenal cortex in the brain that secretes adrenaline (epinephrine) into the bloodstream.

What natural substances do stimulants resemble?


Amphetamines or "speed" became widely known after World War II. During World War II, both sides used an amphetamine (Benzedrine) in certain situations. For example, the Japanese kamikaze pilots reportedly took amphetamines before their life-ending missions of attack on Allied warships. Allied spies were supplied with amphetamines when dropped behind enemy lines, in case they had to stay awake for days at a time to return to safety. Pilots in the U.S. Air Force are still supplied with amphetamines, a fact that the government prefers not to discuss.

Amphetamines have also been widely abused in professional sports. Professional baseball teams in the U.S. only started testing for amphetamines in 2005, and hundreds of players tested positive for the drug. Under the rather lax rules of the time, they were not penalized, nor were their names released, but they were threatened with three-week expulsions if they tested positive a second time.

What are the amphetamines?

In the 1960s dextroamphetamine (brand name Dexedrine) was the most commonly prescribed amphetamine. For many, the drug was synonymous with the term "diet pills." After dextroamphetamine because a controlled substance in the U.S., diet pills containing other ingredients would mimic the old brand name, using trademarked names such as Dexatrim, although the new products contained no amphetamines.

Another type of amphetamine, methamphetamine or "meth," has more potent effects than dextroamphetamine. It was used frequently by Hitler and may account for some of his erratic behavior during World War II. President Kennedy reportedly received injections of methamphetamine as well as powerful steroids during his presidency.

What effects are produced by methamphetamine?

During the mid to late 1960s a drug called "crystal" (crystallized methamphetamine) became popular in motorcycle clubs such as the Hell's Angels. Crystal meth was sometimes snorted (inhaled up the nose), but people who used it often ended up injecting it to get the maximum effect. Because tolerance to amphetamines built quickly, users soon had to inject massive doses to maintain the effects. The effects of injection were dramatic: people would stay awake up to 12 days at a time, eating little if at all, engaged in nervous activity. After that they would "crash," sometimes sleeping for days.

So-called speed freaks could be identified on the streets of major United States cities in the 1960s by their extremely thin arms and legs. Activated by the methamphetamine for days at a time, but lacking appetite, they were digesting their own muscles.

What happened in the 1990s with methamphetamine?

Methamphetamine returned in the 1990s as "ice." Ice is typically smoked rather than injected. It shares with cocaine the tendency to raise blood pressure and heart rate at the same time, increasing the likelihood of heart attack. In 1990, Cho described the manufacture of methamphetamine as "a $3-billion industry with indications of expansion." By the late 1990s, Cho's prediction came true: there was an epidemic of methamphetamine production and addiction, particularly in the Southwestern United States. Methamphetamine abuse also spread well beyond the borders of the U.S. By 2000, methamphetamine production was a major problem in Myanmar, the country formerly called Burma, and by 2007 it was reportedly a common drug of abuse throughout southeast Asia, where it was often used by workers to stay awake and work faster, just as in the U.S.

Why did the government delay banning pseudoephedrine?

The key ingredient of methamphetamine is the adrenaline-like chemical pseudoephedrine. For years, pseudoephedrine was found in most cold remedies, where it functioned as a decongestant. Trying to imitate their success with PCP and methaqualone, U.S. government agencies attempted as early as the 1990s to eliminate methamphetamine abuse by limiting the production of pseudoephedrine. This time, however, major pharmaceutical companies fought representatives of law enforcement. Drug companies claimed millions of people would be inconvenienced by changes in top-selling cold remedies such as Sudafed that contained pseudoephedrine. U.S. administrations sympathetic to business interests decided not to limit this $3 Billion industry, and valuable time was lost. By the time ephedrine-containing products were moved behind the counters at drug stores, in 2005 and 2006, a full-scale meth epidemic was underway.

A PBS Frontline documentary called this "the unnecessary epidemic" because of how it developed. The story, along with lots of information about methamphetamine and its effects, can be found online at this URL:

What did Antelman and colleagues discover about behavioral effects of amphetamine?

Amphetamines are interesting to psychologists not only as a public health problem but also because they imitate the natural effects of stress. In fact, Antelman, Eichler, Black, and Kocan (1980) showed that a dose of amphetamine was biochemically interchangeable with the effects of environmental stress. In non-human primates, amphetamines were observed to cause a "staggering increase in aggression." In humans, long-term administration of amphetamines produces a syndrome indistinguishable from paranoid schizophrenia complete with delusions of persecution and extreme suspicion.

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