Since all addictive drugs increase dopamine concentrations in target structures of the mesolimbic projections, we classify them on the basis of their molecular targets and the underlying mechanisms (Table 32–1 and Figure 32–2). The first group contains the opioids, cannabinoids, f-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), and the hallucinogens, which all exert their action through Gio protein-coupled receptors. The second group includes nicotine, alcohol, the benzodiazepines, dissociative anesthetics, and some inhalants, which interact with ionotropic receptors or ion channels. The last group comprises cocaine, amphetamines, and ecstasy, which all bind to monoamine transporters. The nonaddictive drugs are classified using the same criteria.
DRUGS THAT ACTIVATE GIO-COUPLED RECEPTORS
Opioids may have been the first drugs to be abused (preceding stimulants) and are still among the most commonly used for nonmedical purposes.
Pharmacology & Clinical Aspects
As described in Chapter 31, opioids comprise a large family of endogenous and exogenous agonists at three G protein-coupled receptors: the μ-, κ-, and δ-opioid receptors. Although all three receptors couple to inhibitory G proteins (ie, they all inhibit adenylyl cyclase), they have distinct, sometimes even opposing effects, mainly because of the cell type-specific expression throughout the brain. In the VTA, for example, μ-opioid receptors are selectively expressed on GABA neurons (which they inhibit), whereas κ-opioid receptors are expressed on and inhibit dopamine neurons. This may explain why μ-opioid agonists cause euphoria, whereas κ agonists induce dysphoria.
In line with the latter observations, the rewarding effects of morphine are absent in knockout mice lacking μ receptors but persist when either of the other opioid receptors are ablated. In the VTA, μ opioids cause an inhibition of GABAergic inhibitory interneurons, which leads eventually to a disinhibition of dopamine neurons.
The most commonly abused μ opioids include morphine, heroin (diacetylmorphine, which is rapidly metabolized to morphine), codeine, and oxycodone. Meperidine abuse is common among health professionals. All of these drugs induce strong tolerance and dependence. The withdrawal syndrome may be very severe (except for codeine) and includes intense dysphoria, nausea or vomiting, muscle aches, lacrimation, rhinorrhea, mydriasis, piloerection, sweating, diarrhea, yawning, and fever. Beyond the withdrawal syndrome, which usually lasts no longer than a few days, individuals who have received opioids as analgesics only rarely develop addiction. In contrast, when taken for recreational purposes, opioids are highly addictive. The relative risk of addiction is 4 out of 5 on a scale of 1 (nonaddictive) to 5 (highly addictive).
The opioid antagonist naloxone reverses the effects of a dose of morphine or heroin within minutes. This may be life-saving in the case of a massive overdose (see Chapters 31 and 58). Naloxone administration also provokes an acute withdrawal (precipitated abstinence) syndrome in a dependent person who has recently taken an opioid.
In the treatment of opioid addiction, a long-acting opioid (eg, methadone, buprenorphine, morphine sulphate) is often substituted for the shorter-acting, more rewarding, opioid (eg, heroin). For substitution therapy, methadone is given orally once daily, facilitating supervised intake. Using a partial agonist (buprenorphine) and the much longer half-life (methadone, morphine sulphate, and buprenorphine) may also have some beneficial effects (eg, weaker drug sensitization, which typically requires intermittent exposures), but it is important to realize that abrupt termination of methadone administration invariably precipitates a withdrawal syndrome; that is, the subject on substitution therapy remains dependent. Levomethadone, a preparation containing only the active enantiomer, has similar kinetics and effects as methadone, but lower side effects, particularly when cardiac repolarization is perturbed (long QT interval in the electrocardiogram). Some countries (eg, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Switzerland) even allow substitution of medical heroin for street heroin. A follow-up of a cohort of addicts who received heroin injections in a controlled setting and had access to counseling indicates that addicts under heroin substitution have an improved health status and are better integrated in society. Abuse of prescription opioids has soared in the USA over the last 10 years, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that more than 2 million individuals are dependent on these substances, some of whom may become heroin addicts.
Endogenous cannabinoids that act as neurotransmitters include 2-arachidonyl glycerol (2-AG) and anandamide, both of which bind to CB1 receptors. These very lipid-soluble compounds are released at the postsynaptic somatodendritic membrane, and diffuse through the extracellular space to bind at presynaptic CB1 receptors, where they inhibit the release of either glutamate or GABA. Because of such backward signaling, endocannabinoids are called retrograde messengers. In the hippocampus, release of endocannabinoids from pyramidal neurons selectively affects inhibitory transmission and may contribute to the induction of synaptic plasticity during learning and memory formation.
Exogenous cannabinoids, eg, in marijuana, which when smoked contains thousands of organic and inorganic chemical compounds, exert their pharmacologic effects through active substances including Δ9-tetra-hydrocannabinol (THC), a powerful psychoactive substance. Like opioids, THC causes disinhibition of dopamine neurons, mainly by presynaptic inhibition of GABA neurons in the VTA. The half-life of THC is about 4 hours. The onset of effects of THC after smoking marijuana occurs within minutes and reaches a maximum after 1–2 hours. The most prominent effects are euphoria and relaxation. Users also report feelings of well-being, grandiosity, and altered perception of passage of time. Dose-dependent perceptual changes (eg, visual distortions), drowsiness, diminished coordination, and memory impairment may occur. Cannabinoids can also create a dysphoric state and, in rare cases following the use of very high doses, eg, in hashish, result in visual hallucinations, depersonalization, and frank psychotic episodes. Additional effects of THC, eg, increased appetite, attenuation of nausea, decreased intraocular pressure, and relief of chronic pain, have led to the use of cannabinoids in medical therapeutics. The justification of medicinal use of marijuana was comprehensively examined by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Sciences in its 1999 report, Marijuana & Medicine. Today, medical use of botanical marijuana has been legalized in 25 states and the District of Columbia. Nevertheless this continues to be a controversial issue, mainly because of the fear that cannabinoids may serve as a gateway to the consumption of “hard” drugs or cause schizophrenia in individuals with a predisposition.
Chronic exposure to marijuana leads to dependence, which is revealed by a distinctive, but mild and short-lived, withdrawal syndrome that includes restlessness, irritability, mild agitation, insomnia, nausea, and cramping. The relative risk for addiction is 2.
The synthetic Δ9-THC analog dronabinol is a US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) -approved cannabinoid agonist currently marketed in the USA and some European countries. Nabilone, an older commercial Δ9-THC analog, was recently reintroduced in the USA for treatment of chemotherapy-induced emesis. Nabiximols is a botanical drug obtained by standard extraction. Its active principles are Δ9-THC and cannabidiol. Initially only marketed in the United Kingdom, it is now widely available to treat symptoms of multiple sclerosis. In the USA, nabiximols is in phase III testing for cancer pain. The cannabinoid system is likely to emerge as an important drug target in the future because of its apparent involvement in several therapeutically desirable effects.
Gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB, or sodium oxybate for its salt form) is produced during the metabolism of GABA, but the function of this endogenous agent is unknown at present. The pharmacology of GHB is complex because there are two distinct binding sites. The protein that contains a high-affinity binding site (1 μM) for GHB has been cloned, but its involvement in the cellular effects of GHB at pharmacologic concentrations remains unclear. The low-affinity binding site (1 mM) has been identified as the GABAB receptor. In mice that lack GABAB receptors, even very high doses of GHB have no effect; this suggests that GABAB receptors are the sole mediators of GHB’s pharmacologic action.
GHB was first synthesized in 1960 and introduced as a general anesthetic. Because of its narrow safety margin and its addictive potential, it is not available in the USA for this purpose. Sodium oxybate can, however, be prescribed (under restricted access rules) to treat narcolepsy, because GHB decreases daytime sleepiness and episodes of cataplexy through a mechanism unrelated to the reward system. Before causing sedation and coma, GHB causes euphoria, enhanced sensory perceptions, a feeling of social closeness, and amnesia. These properties have made it a popular “club drug” that goes by colorful street names such as “liquid ecstasy,” “grievous bodily harm,” or “date rape drug.” As the latter name suggests, GHB has been used in date rapes because it is odorless and can be readily dissolved in beverages. It is rapidly absorbed after ingestion and reaches a maximal plasma concentration 20–30 minutes after ingestion of a 10–20 mg/kg dose. The elimination half-life is about 30 minutes.
Although GABAB receptors are expressed on all neurons of the VTA, GABA neurons are much more sensitive to GHB than are dopamine neurons (Figure 32–3). This is reflected by the EC50s, which differ by about one order of magnitude, and indicates the difference in coupling efficiency of the GABAB receptor and the potassium channels responsible for the hyperpolarization. Because GHB is a weak agonist, only GABA neurons are inhibited at the concentrations typically obtained with recreational use. This feature may underlie the reinforcing effects of GHB and the basis for addiction to the drug. At higher doses, however, GHB also hyperpolarizes dopamine neurons, eventually completely inhibiting dopamine release. Such an inhibition of the VTA may in turn preclude its activation by other addictive drugs and may explain why GHB might have some usefulness as an “anticraving” compound.
Disinhibition of dopamine (DA) neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) through drugs that act via Gio-coupled receptors. Top: Opioids target μ-opioid receptors (MORs) that in the VTA are located exclusively on γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurons. MORs are expressed on the presynaptic terminal of these cells and the somatodendritic compartment of the postsynaptic cells. Each compartment has distinct effectors (insets). G protein-βγ-mediated inhibition of voltage-gated calcium channels (VGCC) is the major mechanism in the presynaptic terminal. Conversely, in dendrites MORs activate K channels. Together the pre- and postsynaptic mechanisms reduce transmitter release and suppress activity, ultimately taking away the inhibition by the GABA neurons. Middle: Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and other cannabinoids mainly act through presynaptic inhibition. Bottom: Gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB) targets GABAB receptors, which are located on both cell types. However, GABA neurons are more sensitive to GHB than are DA neurons, leading to disinhibition at concentrations typically obtained with recreational use. CB1R, cannabinoid receptors.
LSD, MESCALINE, & PSILOCYBIN
LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin are commonly called hallucinogens because of their ability to alter consciousness such that the individual senses things that are not present. They induce, often in an unpredictable way, perceptual symptoms, including shape and color distortion. Psychosis-like manifestations (depersonalization, hallucinations, distorted time perception) have led some to classify these drugs as psychotomimetics. They also produce somatic symptoms (dizziness, nausea, paresthesias, and blurred vision). Some users have reported intense reexperiencing of perceptual effects (flashbacks) up to several years after the last drug exposure.
Hallucinogens differ from most other drugs described in this chapter in that they induce neither dependence nor addiction. However, repetitive exposure still leads to rapid tolerance (also called tachyphylaxis). Animals do not self-administer hallucinogens, suggesting that they are not rewarding to them. Additional studies show that these drugs also fail to stimulate dopamine release, further supporting the idea that only drugs that activate the mesolimbic dopamine system are addictive. Instead, hallucinogens increase glutamate release in the cortex, presumably by enhancing excitatory afferent input via presynaptic serotonin receptors (eg, 5-HT2A) from the thalamus.
LSD is an ergot alkaloid. After synthesis, blotter paper or sugar cubes are sprinkled with the liquid and allowed to dry. When LSD is swallowed, psychoactive effects typically appear after 30 minutes and last 6–12 hours. During this time, subjects have impaired ability to make rational judgments and understand common dangers, which puts them at risk for accidents and personal injury.
In an adult, a typical dose is 20–30 mcg. LSD is not considered neurotoxic, but like most ergot alkaloids, it may lead to strong contractions of the uterus that can induce abortion (see Chapter 16).
The main molecular target of LSD and other hallucinogens is the 5-HT2A receptor. This receptor couples to G proteins of the Gq type and generates inositol trisphosphate (IP3), leading to a release of intracellular calcium. Although hallucinogens, and LSD in particular, have been proposed for several therapeutic indications, efficacy has never been demonstrated.
DRUGS THAT MEDIATE THEIR EFFECTS VIA IONOTROPIC RECEPTORS
In terms of numbers affected, addiction to nicotine exceeds all other forms of addiction, affecting more than 50% of all adults in some countries. Nicotine exposure occurs primarily through smoking of tobacco, which causes associated diseases that are responsible for many preventable deaths. The chronic use of chewing tobacco and snuff tobacco is also addictive.
Nicotine is a selective agonist of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) that is normally activated by acetylcholine (see Chapters 6 and 7). Based on nicotine’s enhancement of cognitive performance and the association of Alzheimer’s dementia with a loss of ACh-releasing neurons from the nucleus basalis of Meynert, nAChRs are believed to play an important role in many cognitive processes. The rewarding effect of nicotine requires involvement of the VTA, in which nAChRs are expressed on dopamine neurons. When nicotine excites projection neurons, dopamine is released in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex, thus fulfilling the dopamine requirement of addictive drugs. Recent work has identified α4β2-containing channels in the VTA as the nAChRs that are required for the rewarding effects of nicotine. This statement is based on the observation that knockout mice deficient for the β2 subunit lose interest in self-administering nicotine, and that in these mice, this behavior can be restored through an in vivo transfection of the β2 subunit in neurons of the VTA. Electrophysiologic evidence suggests that homomeric nAChRs made exclusively of α7 subunits also contribute to the reinforcing effects of nicotine. These receptors are mainly expressed on synaptic terminals of excitatory afferents projecting onto the dopamine neurons. They also contribute to nicotine-evoked dopamine release and the long-term changes induced by the drugs related to addiction (eg, long-term synaptic potentiation of excitatory inputs).
Nicotine withdrawal is mild compared with opioid withdrawal and involves irritability and sleep problems. However, nicotine is among the most addictive drugs (relative risk 4), and relapse after attempted cessation is very common.
Treatments for nicotine addiction include nicotine itself in forms that are slowly absorbed and several other drugs. Nicotine that is chewed, inhaled, or transdermally delivered can be substituted for the nicotine in cigarettes, thus slowing the pharmacokinetics and eliminating the many complications associated with the toxic substances found in tobacco smoke. Recently, two partial agonists of α4β2-containing nAChRs have been characterized: the plant-extract cytisine and its synthetic derivative varenicline. Both work by occupying nAChRs on dopamine neurons of the VTA, thus preventing nicotine from exerting its action. Varenicline may impair the capacity to drive and has been associated with suicidal ideation. The antidepressant bupropion is approved for nicotine cessation therapy. It is most effective when combined with behavioral therapies.
Many countries have banned smoking in public places to create smoke-free environments. This important step not only reduces passive smoking and the hazards of secondhand smoke, but also the risk that ex-smokers will be exposed to smoke, which as a contextual cue, may trigger relapse.
Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed as anxiolytics and sleep medications. They represent a definite risk for abuse, which has to be weighed against their beneficial effects. Some persons abuse benzodiazepines for their euphoriant effects, but most often abuse occurs concomitant with other drugs, eg, to attenuate anxiety during withdrawal from opioids.
Benzodiazepine dependence is very common, and diagnosis of addiction is probably often missed. Withdrawal from benzodiazepines occurs within days of stopping the medication and varies as a function of the half-life of elimination. Symptoms include irritability, insomnia, phonophobia and photophobia, depression, muscle cramps, and even seizures. Typically, these symptoms taper off within 1–2 weeks.
Benzodiazepines are positive modulators of the GABAA receptor, increasing both single-channel conductance and open-channel probability. GABAA receptors are pentameric structures consisting of α, β, and γ subunits (see Chapter 22). GABA receptors on dopamine neurons of the VTA lack α1, a subunit isoform that is present in GABA neurons nearby (ie, interneurons). Because of this difference, unitary synaptic currents in interneurons are larger than those in dopamine neurons, and when this difference is amplified by benzodiazepines, interneurons fall silent. GABA is no longer released, and benzodiazepines lose their effect on dopamine neurons, ultimately leading to disinhibition of the dopamine neurons. The rewarding effects of benzodiazepines are, therefore, mediated by α1-containing GABAA receptors expressed on VTA neurons. Receptors containing α5 subunits seem to be required for tolerance to the sedative effects of benzodiazepines, and studies in humans link α2β3-containing receptors to alcohol dependence (the GABAA receptor is also a target of alcohol, see following text). Taken together, a picture is emerging linking GABAA receptors that contain the α1 subunit isoform to their addiction liability. By extension, α1-sparing compounds, which at present remain experimental and are not approved for human use, may eventually be preferred to treat anxiety disorders because of their reduced risk of induced addiction.
Barbiturates, which preceded benzodiazepines as the most commonly abused sedative-hypnotics (after ethanol), are now rarely prescribed to outpatients and therefore constitute a less common prescription drug problem than they did in the past. Street sales of barbiturates, however, continue. Management of barbiturate withdrawal and addiction is similar to that of benzodiazepines.
Alcohol (ethanol, see Chapter 23) is regularly used by a majority of the population in many Western countries. Although only a minority becomes dependent and addicted, abuse is a very serious public health problem because of the social costs and many diseases associated with alcoholism.
The pharmacology of alcohol is complex, and no single receptor mediates all of its effects. On the contrary, alcohol alters the function of several receptors and cellular functions, including GABAA receptors, Kir3/GIRK channels, adenosine reuptake (through the equilibrative nucleoside transporter, ENT1), glycine receptor, NMDA receptor, and 5-HT3 receptor. They are all, with the exception of ENT1, either ionotropic receptors or ion channels. It is not clear which of these targets is responsible for the increase of dopamine release from the mesolimbic reward system. The inhibition of ENT1 is probably not responsible for the rewarding effects (ENT1 knockout mice drink more than controls) but seems to be involved in alcohol dependence through an accumulation of adenosine, stimulation of adenosine A2 receptors, and ensuing enhanced CREB signaling.
Dependence becomes apparent 6–12 hours after cessation of heavy drinking as a withdrawal syndrome that may include tremor (mainly of the hands), nausea and vomiting, excessive sweating, agitation, and anxiety. In some individuals, this is followed by visual, tactile, and auditory hallucinations 12–24 hours after cessation. Generalized seizures may manifest after 24–48 hours. Finally, 48–72 hours after cessation, an alcohol withdrawal delirium (delirium tremens) may become apparent in which the person hallucinates, is disoriented, and shows evidence of autonomic instability. Delirium tremens is associated with 5–15% mortality.
Treatment of ethanol withdrawal is supportive and relies on benzodiazepines, taking care to use compounds such as oxazepam and lorazepam, which are not as dependent on oxidative hepatic metabolism as most other benzodiazepines. In patients in whom monitoring is not reliable and liver function is adequate, a longer-acting benzodiazepine such as chlordiazepoxide is preferred.
As in the treatment of all chronic drug abuse problems, heavy reliance is placed on psychosocial approaches to alcohol addiction. This is perhaps even more important for the alcoholic patient because of the ubiquitous presence of alcohol in many social contexts.
The pharmacologic treatment of alcohol addiction is limited, although several compounds, with different goals, have been used. Therapy is discussed in Chapter 23.
KETAMINE & PHENCYCLIDINE (PCP)
Ketamine and PCP were developed as general anesthetics (see Chapter 25), but only ketamine is still used for this application. Both drugs, along with others, are now classified as “club drugs” and sold under names such as “angel dust,” “Hog,” and “Special K.” They owe their effects to their use-dependent, noncompetitive antagonism of the NMDA receptor. The effects of these substances became apparent when patients undergoing surgery reported unpleasant vivid dreams and hallucinations after anesthesia. Ketamine and PCP are white crystalline powders in their pure forms, but on the street they are also sold as liquids, capsules, or pills, which can be snorted, ingested, injected, or smoked. Psychedelic effects last for about 1 hour and also include increased blood pressure, impaired memory function, and visual alterations. At high doses, unpleasant out-of-body and near-death experiences have been reported. Although ketamine and phencyclidine do not cause dependence and addiction (relative risk = 1), chronic exposure, particularly to PCP, may lead to long-lasting psychosis closely resembling schizophrenia, which may persist beyond drug exposure. Surprisingly, intravenous administration of ketamine can eliminate episodes of depression within hours (see Chapter 30), which is in strong contrast to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and other antidepressants, which usually take weeks to act. The antidepressive mechanism is believed to involve the antagonism of NMDA receptors, thus favoring the mTOR pathway downstream of other glutamate receptors. Recent evidence suggests an alternate explanation. Hydroxynorketamine, a metabolite of ketamine, may actually target AMPA receptors to exert the antidepressant effect. Regardless, a limitation is the transient nature of the effect, which wears off within days even with repetitive administration.
Inhalant abuse is defined as recreational exposure to chemical vapors, such as nitrites, ketones, and aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons. These substances are present in a variety of household and industrial products that are inhaled by “sniffing,” “huffing,” or “bagging.” Sniffing refers to inhalation from an open container, huffing to the soaking of a cloth in the volatile substance before inhalation, and bagging to breathing in and out of a paper or plastic bag filled with fumes. It is common for novices to start with sniffing and progress to huffing and bagging as addiction develops. Inhalant abuse is particularly prevalent in children and young adults.
The exact mechanism of action of most volatile substances remains unknown. Altered function of ionotropic receptors and ion channels throughout the central nervous system has been demonstrated for a few. Nitrous oxide, for example, binds to NMDA receptors, and fuel additives enhance GABAA receptor function. Most inhalants produce euphoria; increased excitability of the VTA has been documented for toluene and may underlie its addiction risk. Other substances, such as amyl nitrite (“poppers”), primarily produce smooth muscle relaxation and enhance erection but are not addictive. With chronic exposure to the aromatic hydrocarbons (eg, benzene, toluene), toxic effects can be observed in many organs, including white matter lesions in the central nervous system. Management of overdose remains supportive.
DRUGS THAT BIND TO TRANSPORTERS OF BIOGENIC AMINES
The prevalence of cocaine abuse has increased greatly over the last decade and now represents a major public health problem worldwide. Cocaine is highly addictive (relative risk = 5), and its use is associated with a number of complications.
Cocaine is an alkaloid found in the leaves of Erythroxylum coca, a shrub indigenous to the Andes. For more than 100 years, it has been extracted and used in clinical medicine, mainly as a local anesthetic and to dilate pupils in ophthalmology. Sigmund Freud famously proposed its use to treat depression and alcohol dependence, but addiction quickly brought an end to this idea.
Cocaine hydrochloride is a water-soluble salt that can be injected or absorbed by any mucosal membrane (eg, nasal snorting). When heated in an alkaline solution, it is transformed into the free base, “crack cocaine,” which can then be smoked. Inhaled crack cocaine is rapidly absorbed in the lungs and penetrates swiftly into the brain, producing an almost instantaneous “rush.”
In the peripheral nervous system, cocaine inhibits voltage-gated sodium channels, thus blocking initiation and conduction of action potentials (see Chapter 26). This mechanism, underlying its effect as a local anesthetic, seems responsible for neither the acute rewarding nor the addictive effects. In the central nervous system, cocaine blocks the uptake of dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin through their respective transporters. The block of the dopamine transporter (DAT), by increasing dopamine concentrations in the nucleus accumbens, has been implicated in the rewarding effects of cocaine (Figure 32–4). In fact, the rewarding effects of cocaine are abolished in mutant mice with a cocaine-insensitive DAT. The activation of the sympathetic nervous system results mainly from blockage of the norepinephrine transporter (NET) and leads to an acute increase in arterial pressure, tachycardia, and often, ventricular arrhythmias. Users typically lose their appetite, are hyperactive, and sleep little. Cocaine exposure increases the risk for intracranial hemorrhage, ischemic stroke, myocardial infarction, and seizures. Cocaine overdose may lead to hyperthermia, coma, and death. In the 1970s, when crack-cocaine appeared in the USA, it was suggested that the drug is particularly harmful to the fetus in addicted pregnant women. The term “crack-baby” was used to describe a specific syndrome of the newborn, and the mothers faced harsh legal consequences. The follow-up of the children, now adults, does not confirm a drug-specific handicap in cognitive performance. Moreover, in this population, the percentage of drug-users is comparable to controls matched for socioeconomic environment.
Mechanism of action of cocaine and amphetamine on synaptic terminal of dopamine (DA) neurons. Left: Cocaine inhibits the dopamine transporter (DAT), decreasing DA clearance from the synaptic cleft and causing an increase in extracellular DA concentration. Right: Since amphetamine (Amph) is a substrate of the DAT, it competitively inhibits DA transport. In addition, once in the cell, amphetamine interferes with the vesicular monoamine transporter (VMAT) and impedes the filling of synaptic vesicles. As a consequence, vesicles are depleted and cytoplasmic DA increases. This leads to a reversal of DAT direction, strongly increasing nonvesicular release of DA, and further increasing extracellular DA concentrations.
Susceptible individuals may become dependent and addicted after only a few exposures to cocaine. Although a withdrawal syndrome is reported, it is not as strong as that observed with opioids. Tolerance may develop, but in some users, a reverse tolerance is observed; that is, they become sensitized to small doses of cocaine. This behavioral sensitization is in part context-dependent. Cravings are very strong and underlie the very high addiction liability of cocaine. To date, no specific antagonist is available, and the management of intoxication remains supportive. Developing a pharmacologic treatment for cocaine addiction is a top priority.
Amphetamines are a group of synthetic, indirect-acting sympathomimetic drugs that cause the release of endogenous biogenic amines, such as dopamine and noradrenaline (see Chapters 6 and 9). Amphetamine, methamphetamine, and their many derivatives exert their effects by reversing the action of biogenic amine transporters at the plasma membrane. Amphetamines are substrates of these transporters and are taken up into the cell (Figure 32–4). Once in the cell, amphetamines interfere with the vesicular monoamine transporter (VMAT; see Figure 6–4), depleting synaptic vesicles of their neurotransmitter content. As a consequence, levels of dopamine (or other transmitter amine) in the cytoplasm increase and quickly become sufficient to cause release into the synapse by reversal of the plasma membrane DAT. Normal vesicular release of dopamine consequently decreases (because synaptic vesicles contain less transmitter), whereas nonvesicular release increases. Similar mechanisms apply for other biogenic amines (serotonin and norepinephrine).
Together with GHB and ecstasy, amphetamines are often referred to as “club drugs” because they are increasingly popular in the club scene. They are often produced in small clandestine laboratories, which makes their precise chemical identification difficult. They differ from ecstasy chiefly in the context of use: intravenous administration and “hard-core” addiction are far more common with amphetamines, especially methamphetamine. In general, amphetamines lead to elevated catecholamine levels that increase arousal and reduce sleep, whereas the effects on the dopamine system mediate euphoria but may also cause abnormal movements and precipitate psychotic episodes. Effects on serotonin transmission may play a role in the hallucinogenic and anorexigenic functions as well as in the hyperthermia often caused by amphetamines.
Unlike many other abused drugs, amphetamines are neurotoxic. The exact mechanism is not known, but neurotoxicity depends on the NMDA receptor and affects mainly serotonin and dopamine neurons.
Amphetamines are typically taken initially in pill form by abusers, but can also be smoked or injected. Heavy users often progress rapidly to intravenous administration. Within hours after oral ingestion, amphetamines increase alertness and cause euphoria, agitation, and confusion. Bruxism (tooth grinding) and skin flushing may occur. Effects on heart rate may be minimal with some compounds (eg, methamphetamine), but with increasing dosage these agents often lead to tachycardia and dysrhythmias. Hypertensive crisis and vasoconstriction may lead to stroke. Spread of HIV and hepatitis infection in inner cities has been closely associated with needle sharing by intravenous users of methamphetamine.
With chronic use, amphetamine tolerance may develop, leading to dose escalation. Withdrawal consists of dysphoria, drowsiness (in some cases, insomnia), and general irritability.
Ecstasy is the name of a class of drugs that includes a large variety of derivatives of the amphetamine-related compound methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). MDMA was originally used in some forms of psychotherapy, but no medically useful effects were documented. This is perhaps not surprising, because the main effect of ecstasy appears to be to foster feelings of intimacy and empathy without impairing intellectual capacities. Today, MDMA and its many derivatives are often produced in small quantities in ad hoc laboratories and distributed at parties or “raves,” where it is taken orally. Ecstasy therefore is the prototypic designer drug and, as such, is increasingly popular.
Similar to the amphetamines, MDMA causes release of biogenic amines by reversing the action of their respective transporters. It has a preferential affinity for the serotonin transporter (SERT) and therefore most strongly increases the extracellular concentration of serotonin. This release is so profound that there is a marked intracellular depletion for 24 hours after a single dose. With repetitive administration, serotonin depletion may become permanent, which has triggered a debate on its neurotoxicity. Although direct proof from animal models for neurotoxicity remains weak, several studies report long-term cognitive impairment in heavy users of MDMA.
In contrast, there is a wide consensus that MDMA has several acute toxic effects, in particular hyperthermia, which along with dehydration (eg, caused by an all-night dance party) may be fatal. Other complications include serotonin syndrome (mental status change, autonomic hyperactivity, and neuromuscular abnormalities; see Chapter 16) and seizures. Following warnings about the dangers of MDMA, some users have attempted to compensate for hyperthermia by drinking excessive amounts of water, causing water intoxication involving severe hyponatremia, seizures, and even death.
Withdrawal is marked by a mood “offset” characterized by depression lasting up to several weeks. There have also been reports of increased aggression during periods of abstinence in chronic MDMA users.
Taken together, the evidence for irreversible damage to the brain, although not completely convincing, implies that even occasional recreational use of MDMA cannot be considered safe.