New Study by Wayne State University researcher finds common household solvent Toluene induces serious stimulant effects

August 7, 2008

DETROIT- A household solvent commonly abused by adolescents in "glue sniffing" may be more dangerous than previously thought, according to a study by a Wayne State University researcher featured in the current issue of NIDA Notes, a monthly publication of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Dr. Scott Bowen

Dr. Scott Bowen, associate professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at WSU and resident of Livonia, Mich., is featured in issue 21-6 for a study on toluene, an inhalant known to have drug-like effects. Found in glues, paint removers, varnishes and other common household items, toluene is often the first drug abused by adolescents because it's inexpensive, easy to find, and legal. Though it has long been classified as a depressant, Bowen's study adds to other recent findings that toluene also induces stimulant-like effects.

For his experiment, Bowen injected mice alternately with the stimulant amphetamine and a neutral saline solution, and trained them to seek milk rewards by pressing the correct lever - one if they had received amphetamine, and a different one for saline. After the mice learned to adequately choose the lever associated with the substance they received, Bowen exposed them to different concentrations of toluene as well as an air-only control. When exposed to toluene, the mice pressed the amphetamine-linked lever significantly more, and increased their frequency when toluene concentration increased - indicating that the inhalant felt similar to amphetamine. In addition, the mice that had received the highest concentrations continued to choose that lever for the longest amount of time - up to 20 minutes after exposure. Mice that had been exposed to air only, in contrast, almost always chose the saline lever.

Bowen's findings indicate that toluene shares behavioral and pharmacological effects with other abused stimulants. The research gives an additional direction for furthering research on how the solvent works within the brain, and could provide the foundation for much-needed prevention strategies.

"Here you've got kids that are inhaling these solvents at a time when their brains are undergoing phenomenal growth and development, and abuse of solvents like toluene can have devastating effects on those processes," Bowen said. "Not only that, but solvents like toluene can be toxic and even lethal if inhaled - you can die from the first time abusing them. Kids and parents need to really understand that."

Bowen's next steps include examining many of the questions raised by his toluene finding, including long-term implications of chronic abuse. Since exposure to one stimulant often heightens the response to subsequent stimulant exposures, early toluene abuse in adolescents may lead to further drug abuse later in life. He is also investigating similarities toluene has to other inhalants, and possible variances in the damage toluene may cause to different age groups.

Dr. Douglas Whitman, chair of Psychology at WSU, said although there is still much to be learned about the effects of toluene, Dr. Bowen's research is leading the way in understanding a much-ignored abused substance. "As of 2003, about 23 million people in the United States reported ever having used inhalants," he said, citing another Bowen study. "Yet research in this area is astoundingly rare. How this solvent alters the brain, any long-lasting damage it may cause, and even the major subjective effects the drug has on its users are still under investigation. In researching a drug so dramatically overlooked yet so widely abused, Dr. Bowen will undoubtedly continue to draw the attention of NIDA and other institutions of drug abuse research with further advancements in the field."

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Wayne State University is one of the nation's pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world.