A team of researchers has demonstrated that regular use of the party drug GHB, or gamma-hydroxybutyrate, is associated with brain changes including higher levels of stress and anxiety and negative effects on long-term memory, working memory, and IQ.
Also known as “G” or “liquid ecstasy,” GHB is a central nervous system depressant that is often used in clubs and in private house parties. The initial feeling of euphoria produced by GHB can soon lead to sleepiness, unconsciousness, and can even put users in a coma.
According to the researchers, it is not unusual for regular, recreational users to experience more than 50 GHB-induced comas.
To investigate the effects of GHB on the brain, a team of scientists from the Amsterdam UMC recruited 27 GHB users who had experienced multiple GHB-induced comas, 27 GHB users who had never had a coma, and 27 volunteers who had never used GHB. Each participant was tested for IQ, anxiety, depression, and stress.
The researchers found that any extent of GHB use was associated with alterations in the identification of negative emotions. In addition, the presence of GHB-induced comas was associated with lower IQ and altered brain processes during verbal long-term memory and working memory.
“Surprisingly little is known about the effects of GHB in humans, and as far as we know, these are the first functional MRI scans to gauge the effect of the regular GHB use and multiple GHB-induced comas,” explained lead researcher Filipa Raposo Pereira.
“Our results indicate that there may be risks involved in regular GHB use. This is particularly relevant to regular users with multiple GHB-induced comas; we found that these users show differences in cognition to either those who don’t fall into a coma, or drug users who have never used GHB.”
“In an as yet unpublished study, we show that those with multiple GHB-induced comas also have 63% more stress and 23% more anxiety, and alterations in long-term memory. MRI scans also show that there are changes to the brain, with some areas showing altered brain activity and connectivity between memory-related cerebral pathways.”
“These results show that there are brain and cognitive changes associated with multiple GHB-induced comas. Most users experience only the feeling of elation followed by drowsiness or sleep, so they don’t see that there might be any negative effects. This work indicates that might not be the case.”
Professor David Nutt of the Imperial College London added: “This research is interesting and recreational users should be made aware of these findings. They probably reflect periods of hypoxia due to excessive GHB concentrations in brain. When GHB is used in a regulated fashion as a medicine – for example, for narcolepsy – there doesn’t appear to be a similar risk, so patients on this medicine should not worry.”
The study will be presented at the 31st Congress of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology.