Reddit: An Early Warning for New Designer Drugs

Reddit forums could provide an early warning for designer drugs.

Plus: How perceptions of the future may shape AUD recovery, and marijuana’s effect on male fertility

By Mark Mravic

Keeping up with the rapid emergence of new synthetic drugs is one of the toughest challenges for those on the front lines in combating drug misuse and addiction. Now researchers at Florida Atlantic University have come up with a potential game-changer for identifying and tracking new drugs as—or even before—they hit the street. We also look at how reshaping people’s view of the future may help prevent relapse, and more troubling signs that might make men think twice before lighting a joint or downing an edible.

From the International Journal of Drug Policy:
Online Chatter Flags New Synthetic Drugs

Front-line workers in the medical and intervention communities often don’t know about new synthetic drugs until patients start turning up in emergency rooms with unusual symptoms. And when that drug is a powerful opioid or stimulant no one has seen before, it might be too late to do anything. But a new study out of Florida Atlantic University offers the promise of help. Researchers from FAU and the Center for Forensic Science Research & Education mined drug use forums on Reddit, the global social media platform with more than 430 million active users, for mentions of eight novel psychoactive substances (NPS)—including opioids, stimulants, a benzo and a cannabinoid. They then checked those mentions against data from toxicology reports.

The findings: For seven of the eight NSPs, mentions on Reddit preceded waves of poisonings or intoxifications, including fatal overdoses. And the rise and fall of mentions were often strongly correlated with toxicology reports and other exposures to the drugs. The outlier was the synthetic cannabinoid 5F-MDMB-PICA, which researchers say was more difficult to track in the online chatter because of its varied street names, such as “K2” and “Spice.”

“Peaks in online mentions were typically followed, in fairly close succession, by peaks in exposures.”

—Alex J. Krotulski, Center for Forensic Science Research & Education

“We saw striking similarities for most novel psychoactive substances,” study author Alex J. Krotulski, PhD, said in a news release. “Peaks in online mentions were typically followed, in fairly close succession, by peaks in exposures.” Added senior author Elan Barenholtz, PhD, “Results from our study confirm that activity on drug use forums in the virtual world can help predict changes in exposures associated with new or re-emerging novel psychoactive substances in the real world, which has the potential to be used as a strategy for inclusion in early-warning systems.”

From Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research:
The Benefits of Taking It “Slow” in Recovery

For many folks battling substance misuse, recovery is a day-to-day, even hour-to-hour challenge. Would it help if people were better able to take a longer view? Researchers at Virginia Tech studied how 110 people in recovery from alcohol use disorder (AUD) perceived the future, and how that perception shapes their potential to engage in risky behavior, including relapse.

The scientists measured their subjects’ “temporal window of integration”—how far into the future people can imagine themselves and the impacts of their decision-making—by probing the extent to which they would choose lower amounts of money right away versus larger amounts down the road. This phenomenon, called delay discounting, can be an effective predictor of health, economic and personal development behavior. In short, people who prefer to take less money more quickly tend to have what the researchers call a “fast life-history,” where the focus is on immediate reward, with less concern for long-term well-being. Those with a “slow life-history” are more focused on future rewards, personal growth and physical health. In the context of AUD, researchers say the former are more likely to relapse, the latter to be in remission.

The study suggests people in recovery from AUD with faster life-history strategies may benefit from interventions that expand their time horizon and improve their outlook. “Slips, relapses, dropping out of treatment, pharmacological non-compliance, and failure to follow the treatment plans are the rule rather than the exception in AUDs,” commented addiction expert Mark S. Gold, PhD., of Washington University, noting that the study “shows that measuring delay discounting could be … a good prognostic sign predicting an individual recovery and remission.”

From Fertility and Sterility:
Marijuana May Reduce Male Fertility

The decriminalization of marijuana across the country carries with it the promise of widespread benefits, from addressing racial inequity to creating jobs. But it also has risks, more of which we’re learning about as marijuana use rises, especially among young people. A new study out of Oregon Health & Science University offers evidence that chronic marijuana use can seriously inhibit male fertility.

Researchers at OHSU administered adult male rhesus monkeys with increasing doses of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in weed, until reaching the equivalent of heavy use in humans. At those levels, the researchers found “significant adverse impacts to the animals’ reproductive hormones, including decreased levels of testosterone and severe testicular shrinkage”—indeed, a more than 50% decrease in size. The effects worsened as the dosage increased.

“These early findings are concerning from a clinical standpoint,” lead author Jason C. Hedges, MD, PhD, said. “As the prevalence of edible marijuana use continues to increase in the U.S. and worldwide—particularly in males of prime reproductive age—even moderate doses could have a profound impact on fertility outcomes.” The researchers say further study is needed to see if the effects can be reversed, and if a human study validates the findings.