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Pharmacological effects of New Psychoactive Substances

The substances controlled under the international drug conventions produce psychoactive effects through a handful of pharmacological mechanisms. These include

  • interactions with opioid receptor and inhibitory neurotransmitters;
  • activation of the cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1);
  • action of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) at the GABAA receptor to produce, for example, sedative, hypnotic and anxiolytic effects;
  • modulation of the levels and actions of the monoamine neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine and serotonin;
  • action as an N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonist;
  • action which mediate specific serotonin receptor activities.

This approach allows the assignment of the majority of new psychoactive substances  into six main ‘effect’ groups (figure below). Some substances may produce effects resulting from more than one of the aforementioned groups. In collaboration with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), studies of the pharmacology of a range of NPS are available through the UNODC Early Warning Advisory (EWA)  and can be accessed at the following pages: 

Toxicology data reported is available through our UNODC Early Warning Advisory Toxicology Portal.