What happens to your brain when you use synthetic cathinones ("bath salts")?

The lab-made cathinones in “bath salts” can temporarily produce feelings of joy and increased social interaction, including an increased sex drive. But they can also cause paranoia, nervousness, and hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not real).

There is a lot we still don’t know about how the different chemicals in "bath salts" affect the brain. Researchers do know that bath salts are chemically similar to amphetamines, cocaine, and MDMA. Therefore, some of the effects of “bath salts"—such as feeling energetic and agitated—are similar.

These drugs change the way the brain works by changing the way nerve cells communicate. Nerve cells, called neurons, send messages to each other by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters. Drugs affect this signaling process. 

“Bath salts” raise the level of one type of neurotransmitter, called dopamine, in brain circuits that control reward and movement. Dopamine is the main neurotransmitter that relates to the brain's reward systemthe system that tells us we feel good. Circuits in the reward system use dopamine to teach the brain to repeat actions we find pleasurable. Drugs take control of this system, releasing large amounts of dopaminefirst in response to the drug but later mainly in response to other cues associated with the drug, like when you see people you use drugs with, or plases where you use drugs. The result is an intensive motivation to seek the drug.

Additionally, the hallucinations often reported by people who use “bath salts” are similar to the effects caused by other drugs such as MDMA or LSD. These drugs raise levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Learn more about how the brain works and what happens when a person uses drugs. And, check out how the brain responds to natural rewards and to drugs.