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Biology 202, Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
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Date rape drugs have many uses

Amanda Davis

I chose to research the neurobiological affects of date rape drugs. I first found the three major date rape drugs names which are gamma hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), rohypnol (flunitrazepam), and ketamine (ketamine hydrochloride) (1). It's effective as a date rape drug because often victims cannot remember what happened while they were under the influence of the drug (1). Thus I began my search on gamma hydroxybutyric acid expecting to find how it affected memory and more generally date rape victims. Instead, I found its effects relating to its use as a recreational drug and in treatment of alcoholism, both of which greatly surprised me.

GHB is a short chain fatty acid that is naturally occurring and closely resembles the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA (2). It's highest concentrations are in the hypothalamus and basal ganglia (3). GHB had been previously thought to compete with GABA, but accumulating evidence suggests it acts a neurotransmitter or neuromodulator on its own (3). It appears that GHB neurobiological activity is mediated through GHB receptors and, in higher doses, GABA receptors (7). In mammals, however, GHB is formed from GABA. It astonishes me that a neurotransmitter produced by our own bodies can be effective to commit such a heinous crime.

During the 1980s GHB was used by body-builders because it was thought to quicken fat loss and muscle gain (4). It stimulates growth hormone release in a pathway important to protein synthesis (4). Because of the risk of misuse, the FDA outlawed over the counter sales of GHB in 1990 (4). Low doses of GHB can cause a euphoric effect in humans (3). In a study of Australians who used GHB recreationally, they reported heightened sexuality, euphoria, loss of inhibition, relaxation and increased sociability (4). Its recreational use is increasing in the rave scene and subsequently GHB is used with a slew of other drugs (4). A study done with laboratory rats shows the abusive nature of GHB (5). GHB was self administered to mice which were not previously exposed to drugs on a similar bell shaped curve as other drugs of a abuse such as cocaine, nicotine and morphine (5). This means that GHB has positive reinforcing effects on users (5).

GHB has been used to treat alcoholism, narcolepsy, anxiety and depressive disorders (3) and possibly could be used to treat dependencies on other drugs (5). Positive reinforcement of alcohol use is related to the release of dopamine in a region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens (6). Alcohol addiction, however, is associated with the interaction of several neurotransmitters such as opiod peptides may influence alcohol's rewarding effects (6). This neurotransmitter and serotonin, under the regulation of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA and excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate, influence dopamine activity in the nucleus accumbens (6). GHB can interfere with dopamine, serotonin, and opiod neurotransmitter systems (3) which can account for its influence on alcoholic cravings. GHB administered orally has been shown to raise levels of endogenous ETOH in detoxified alcoholics (3). This could be another reason it relieves some alcohol-withdrawal symptoms (6). It can also inhibit voluntary ETOH intake in rats and withdrawal symptoms in physically-dependant rats (3). GHB was more effective than a placebo in a group of human alcoholics in increasing alcohol-abstinent days, and reducing the number of drinks in one day (3). GHB's use to reduce the nervous system's dependency on ETOL has been compared to the use of methadone to reduce dependency on heroin (3).

Although none of the articles mentioned GHB as a date rape drug, certain effects of the drug made clear to me how it would be effective in that sense. GHB can cause "trance-like" states, thought to be stupors, or a sleep-like state which was discovered by electroencephalographs to be non-convulsive seizures (3). A woman having a non-convulsive seizure would appear to be awake, possibly just "zoned-out," but would not remember what happened during the seizure . If alcohol is consumed with GHB, the alcohol would take a longer time to leave the individual's system, leaving her impaired for a longer time because higher doses of GHB inhibit the rate of removal of ETOH (3). Both of these aspects of GHB can account for its use as a date rape drug.

When searching for information on rohypnol (flunitrazepam), I found more information relating to date rape, but not much on the neurobiological aspects. Flunitrazepam is used to treat insomnia which is seen midwinter in Northern Norway in otherwise healthy patients (8). It is highly effective in increasing alertness and feeling of being refreshed in the morning with minimal side effects (8).

Ketamine, known on the street as Special K (9). has been used to mimic schizophrenic symptoms to have a model for schizophrenia (10). Ketamine was and is still used for anesthesia, most commonly in dental procedures (10). Ketamine works by blocking ion channels and thus blocking receptors for certain neurotransmitters (10). When given to schizophrenic patients, their symptoms become worse (10). Ketamine also increases blood flow in the anterior cingulated cortices and decreases blood flow in the hippocampus and cerebellum, which are all areas that are also abnormal in schizophrenia (10).

Date rape drugs are used for recreation, treatment of neurological disorders, and for understanding certain neurological disorders. It is surprising to know that a neurotransmitter, GHB, in large doses can cause seizures and memory blackouts and in a more moderate dose causes the reduction of alcohol cravings. It's strange that one chemical can have so many different effects on the brain and behavior. Ketamine is also interesting because it creates schizophrenic symptoms and is used for recreation. Therefore people using it for recreation much enjoy possessing schizophrenic symptoms, which makes me wonder about people with schizophrenia and what it's like to live in their brains. I started off with questions about date rape drugs and am finishing with questions about schizophrenia. The brain is an interesting and unpredictable place at times.


1)Date Rape Drugs, National Women's Health Information Center.

2)"From the street to the brain: neurobiology of the recreational drug gamma-hydroxybutyric acid", Wong CG, Gibson KM, Snead OC. National Center for Biotechnology Information; U.S. National Library of Medicine

3)"The Role of gamma-hydroxybutyric acid in the treatment of alcoholism: from animal to clinical studies", Flavio Poldrugo and Giovanni Addolorato.

4)"Liquid ecstasy: a new kid on the dance floor", J. Rodgers, PhD and C. H. Ashton. The British Journal of Psychiatry.

5)Invited Symposium: Recent advances in the neurobiology of drug addiction, Liana Fattore, Gregorio Cossu, Cristina Martellotta, and Walter Fratta.

6)"Medications and Alcohol Craving", Swift, Robert M., M.D., Ph.D. Alcohol Research and Health.

7)"Selective gamma-hydroxybutyric acid receptor ligands increase extracellular glutamate in the hippocampus, but fail to activate G protein and to produce the sedative/hypnotic effect of gamma-hydroxybutyric acid", M. Paola Castelli, et al. Journal of Neurochemistry.

8)"Triazolam (Halcion) versus flunitrazepam (Rohypnol) against midwinter insomnia in Northern Norway", Lingjaerde O, Bratlid T. National Center for Biotechnology Information; U.S. National Library of Medicine.

9)Ketamine: a fact sheet, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Alcohol and Drug Information.

10)"The Latest Theories on the Neurobiology of Schizophrenia", John J. Spollen III, MD.

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