This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 03 table of contents.

Synthetic Analogs of Naturally-Occurring Drugs

Drugs like LSD act by mimicking natural transmitters...or blocking them, or in some other way interfering with them or boosting their levels. As knowledge of neurotransmitters accumulates, scientists are able to synthesize more substances with psychoactive effects.

What is a big problem with synthetic analogs of natural drugs, purchased "on the street"?

These synthetic analogs of natural drugs are sometimes called "designer drugs," a label many drug experts dislike because it glamorizes drug taking. Whatever they are called, the synthetic analogs pose a problem for both law enforcement officials and users. For users, it is impossible to tell if a drug purchased on the street is pure or contaminated.

In one famous case, a 23-year-old chemistry graduate student was trying illegally to synthesize Demerol, a medication with effects similar to heroin. He made a slight error and the resulting drug contained a chemical byproduct called MPTP, which destroyed dopaminergic areas in a brain region called the substantia nigra.

How did MPTP lead to a breakthrough in Parkinson's disease research?

The young chemist arrived at the hospital "mute, unable to move or swallow, and he had a tremor. His symptoms subsided when he was given L-Dopa" (Kolata, 1983). The young man had accidentally given himself Parkinson's disease. His reaction led to a breakthrough for Parkinson's disease research because it pinpointed the brain area involved. Unfortunately, it left the young man (and a number of other drug users who tried similar substances) with a permanent disability.

What did Schuster and Seiden find out about "ecstasy"?

"Ecstasy" or MDMA is a drug that produces symptoms similar to LSD. The "trip" is not as dramatically visual as that produced by high doses of LSD, nor is it as likely to be accompanied by anxiety. Users of MDMA report a sensation of well-being and "loving everybody." However, researchers Charles Schuster and Lewis Seiden reported the dose of MDMA required to kill neurons in lab animals was only three times the dose required to get a behavioral effect. The drug destroyed serotinergic neurons in the brain.

What were Gabler's findings?

The dose/toxicity ratio of MDMA for whole animals (as opposed to neurons) is about 16, according to Gabler (2006). In other words, the dose of ecstasy required to kill a lab animal was 16 times the dose needed to produce a behavioral effect, making the drug safer than alcohol by that criterion. Indeed, deaths from MDMA are rare, and when they occur they almost always involve other drugs, usually alcohol. For that reason, Gabler used animal studies to compute the dose/toxicity ratio of ecstasy, rather than studying human deaths from ecstasy. However, if MDMA is killing neurons at sub-lethal doses (without necessarily killing the drug taker) that is also worth noting. Schuster and Seiden's data suggest that a triple dose of ecstasy could kill neurons.

Ecstasy nevertheless became popular during the 1990s in Britain, where it became associated with raves or all-night dance parties. By 2000 it was being called "the rave drug" in the United States as well. Deaths at raves showed that overdoses of ecstasy could indeed cause death in combination with other drugs, usually through hyperthermia or overheating of the body. But these deaths are not common. Gabler (2006) estimated that there were less than 35 deaths from MDMA in the entire English-language medical literature, and almost all involved alcohol as well.

What event led the United States Congress to pass a law banning all synthetic psychoactive drugs?

MDMA or ecstasy was legal for months after it was discovered, because there was no law specifically prohibiting it. At the urging of law enforcement officials, the United States congress passed a law banning any synthetic drug that resembled a drug currently abused. Now it is illegal in the United States to produce or sell any drug that alters consciousness in a way resembling existing psychoactive drugs.

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