Researchers at the The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have used animal models to demonstrate that alpha-PVP or α-pyrrolidinopentiophenone ("flakka") is just as potent and addictive as its chemical cousin MDPV ("bath salts").

Flakka is the newest designer drug to gain popularity in the United States. As HNGN previously reported, Flakka is easily concealed in e-cigarettes, making parents worry their teens are smoking the crystals. Flakka causes paranoia and hallucinations. It has caused people to have sex with trees, attempt to break into a police department and even caused one Florida woman to black out and abandon her 1-year-old daughter outside a building.

"There have been assertions that flakka is somehow worse than MDPV, but this study shows that the two are very similar," said Michael A. Taffe, an associate professor at TSRI, according to a press release.

Co-senior author and TSRI associate professor Tobin J. Dickerson added, according to the press release: "That doesn't mean that flakka use is 'safe'-our data show that flakka is as potent as MDPV, making it a very good stimulant, arguably with worse addiction liability than methamphetamine."

For the study, the research team used a standard animal model of addiction potential in which rats are trained to press a lever to infuse themselves intravenously with small doses. As expected for an addictive stimulant, the rats tended to press the drug-delivery lever more and more in each one-hour session as 20 daily sessions progressed. When the researchers increased the number of lever presses required to get another dose, the animals kept pressing-for up to hundreds of presses per dose.

In a head-to-head test of self-administration of alpha-PVP against MDPV, alpha-PVP showed an almost identical potency to induce lever presses. The drugs also showed approximately the same ability to induce two classic stimulant effects, boosting physical activity and disrupting body temperature.

Designer drugs are often variations of other drugs that have been made illegal. Alpha-PVP is designed to be slightly different from MDPV, which has been illegal in the United States since 2011. The new drug's chemical difference, the lack of a cluster of atoms known as the 3,4-methylenedioxy motif, is the same as the one that distinguishes methamphetamine from MDMA ("Ecstasy").

Alpha-PVP was legal until the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration put a ban on it early in 2014-a temporary ban that is almost certain to become permanent. Nevertheless, the drug is so potent and so cheap-reportedly as low as $5 per dose-that its use has grown in certain parts of the country, prompting concerns among police and health officials, according to the press release.

"These drugs are not made in garages anymore," Dickerson said, according to the press release. "They're made by sophisticated chemistry labs that are producing not just one drug, but also analogs of that drug, so as soon as one drug gets banned, here comes the next one, and the next one-and there's no evidence of any kind of safety testing prior to their release into the drug user population."

In addition to Taffe and Dickerson, co-authors of the paper, "In vivo potency and efficacy of the novel cathinone α-pyrrolidinopentiophenone and 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone: self-administration and locomotor stimulation in male rats," were first author Shawn M. Aarde (then a research associate in the Taffe laboratory), and Kevin M. Creehan and Sophia A. Vandewater of TSRI.

In addition to Taffe and Dickerson, co-authors of the paper, "Binge-like acquisition of 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) self-administration and wheel activity in rats," were first author Shawn M. Aarde and P.K Huang.

Funding for the research came from the National Institutes of Health (R01 DA024105 and DA024705).