Salvia: Miley Cyrus Brought This ‘It’ Drug Into the Spotlight, Is it Dangerous?

Adi Jaffe, Ph.D.

Posted: December 14, 2010 01:45 PM

It causes hallucinations and impairs coordination. The high is almost immediate when smoked. Within five minutes it causes uncontrollable laughter or panic.

While this could be a description for LSD or even marijuana, it can also be used to describe the new “it” drug, salvia. But there is one important difference to note — salvia is legal, at least for now.

Before last week, many people had never heard of the herbal drug salvia, let alone thought about smoking it recreationally. But a leaked video of pop princess Miley Cyrus changed all that, bringing salvia to the mainstream.

As early reports began circulating that there was a video of Miley smoking out of a bong, her camp immediately went on the defense stating that she wasn’t smoking marijuana, rather the herb salvia, which they stressed is legal in California.

Legal or not, the video has stirred up heavy controversy and left many parents wondering what exactly is salvia and whether it is something they need to worry about.

Salvia divinorum is a highly potent herb from the mint and sage families. But unlike its relatives, salvia’s leaves are sold as an alternative to marijuana because of the hallucinogenic effects it produces.

While the drug is currently legal in many of the states, Florida, Virginia and Illinois are among the 15 that have prohibited the substance.

In addition to controversy, the video has stirred up sales for the herbal drug. TMZ is reporting that salvia sales have surged since the release of the video last week.

This increased interest is causing several states, including California, to reconsider their stance on its legal status. Politicians, doctors and parents are concerned about the impact the video will have on kids and young adults, especially considering the accessibility of salvia. Because it is considered a legal substance, in some cases it can be easier for minors to buy salvia than cigarettes.

But again, simply because it’s legal doesn’t mean there isn’t cause for concern. Salvia is often compared to illegal drugs; it is smoked and has a similar appearance to marijuana, and brings on hallucinations, a similar effect to LSD. The high is intense but the trip is substantially shorter than that of other hallucinogens. Often the effects are gone within 20 minutes. Even with the relatively short trip time, the experience can be intense and even scary for some.

Unlike LSD and mushrooms, which act like serotonin, salvia acts through opioid receptors and even more specifically through Kappa opioid receptors. This is in contrast to the receptors that morphine and heroin act on. These receptors are responsible for the feelings of paranoia and anxiety that can lead to dysphoric effects like unease and depression. Despite the increased likelihood that negative side effects will be produced, not all users experience them and they are subject to the individual and dependent on the actual amount consumed.

The number of hits, as with other drugs, has been found to closely correlate with the amount of functionality problems exhibiting themselves in diction and fluency of movements.

The effect salvia has on an individual is subjective, but additional effects that have been tied to the drug include revisiting past memories, sensations of motion, visions of membranes, merging with or becoming objects and a sense of overlapping realities.

Although evidence seems to show that salvia use is relatively safe in the short-term, little is currently known about the long-term effects of salvia and studies are underway to find out if it holds any medicinal value. Studies are also being conducted to learn whether or not the drug holds any addictive properties.

But in the meantime, the medical community stresses caution, as there are still a lot of unknown variables with the drug and its effects, both short and long-term. What we do know is that salvia puts teenagers at high risk for a “bad” trip, which could mean anything from extreme anxiety attacks to sadness and depression. And while the high doesn’t last a significant period of time, the intensity is severe and can lead to severe reactions.

Importantly, the hallucinations and distortions of reality make one thing pretty clear — this drug should NEVER be tried when driving. As for Miley, it seems she has introduced salvia to a new following with her endorsement — so expect this drug to become increasingly popular in the coming months.

Kids and Porn: The Discussion

by Marnia Robinson

Published on December 13, 2010

About five years ago, limitless quantities of free, shocking, explicit videos became widely available to savvy Internet users with high-speed connections. Alas, some of the planet’s most talented computer wizards are youngsters. Passing around outrageous pornographic video clips is now a popular social activity.

Such videos are often so extreme that they dumbfound even the most freethinking parents. According to psychiatrist Norman Doidge in The Brain That Changes Itself, porn grows more shocking because today’s porn users tend to habituate to material viewed. That is, today’s superstimulating porn, instead of satisfying more, numbs the brain’s pleasure response. Then the user needs something even more shocking to get aroused—which the porn industry continuously delivers. Who’s gonna get excited by “PacMan” when he has been playing “Grand Theft Auto” or “Halo 3”?

The more novel, startling, “sinful,” forbidden, or even disgusting, a video is, the cooler it is to pass around. Also, the more it excites a viewer’s brain (specifically, the reward circuitry). Climax then reinforces the “value” of the material that produces the climax. So, kids’ brains are now rewiring to value brain-jolting material for which nothing in their (or most anyone’s) experience has prepared them.  Norepinephine released in response to shocking images also appears to reinforce this learning.

While video games also flood the brain with dopamine, it’s evident that sexual content activates additional aspects of the brain’s reward circuitry. As kids mature, sexual reproduction signals trump video-game thrills.

The brain changes that follow repeated stimulation can have surprising effects. Young men report that their sexual tastes sometimes morph in unexpected directions, and that they become less responsive to normal flirting. Sure, part of their brain still wants a sweetheart with whom to do the usual, rewarding teenage things. Yet another part wants a porn star’s moans of artificial desire, which their brains associate with fleeting relief.

Since I began sharing the correlations men are discovering between heavy Internet porn use and symptoms like erectile dysfunction and social anxiety, I’ve been hearing from younger and younger guys struggling with such symptoms. (As an aside, users who manage to avoid extreme stimulation do not seem to report unusual erectile dysfunction problems.) Here’s a sample:

I’m hoping to recover and get aroused more around girls. I have been going insane thinking that my sex life is over. I am 15 years old and I’ve been masturbating since I was 12. It started out as just simple videos but now I have been getting into more extreme stuff. … Can you explain to me the basic steps I need to take to recover please? … I have to ask this so that my mind can rest and I can feel confident. Is there any permanent damage done to me? If I successfully quit porn will my limb stay up when I become sexually active in the future? Or will I have ED issues?

Science has not investigated or verified the answers to his questions. First, who can find porn virgins of a suitable age to test? Second, who deliberately wants to expose kids to superstimulating, aberrant erotic videos to see what happens in their brains, or how it alters their sexual response over time?

It has long been known that overstimulating the brain’s reward circuit with drugs can cause cravings for more and more. Now, research is revealing that non-drug, “natural” things, like junk food, can alter the neurochemical balance of this part of the brain like drugs—numbing response to normal stimuli. The symptoms heavy porn users report suggest that their brains are experiencing these very changes. (Slowly, both porn’s risks and the benefits from leaving it behind are becoming evident.)

If a guy has been viewing porn videos since puberty, or before, how would he know if his (lack of) response to potential sweethearts, his kinky tastes, or his masturbation cravings are normal for him? He has nothing with which to compare. Sexologist Jakob Pastötter gives an example of how porn shapes perception:

When Kinsey did his studies in the 40s, not even gay men practiced anal sex frequently. The first changes occurred during the 70s in the gay scene and then, especially under the influence of the so-called gonzo pornography, also in heterosexual circles. Suddenly, anal sex seems to have become quite a common practice. And accordingly, sex counsellors report that not too long ago the first boys enquired, “How can I persuade my girlfriend to have anal sex?” Then, a few years later, came the first girls, “How can I dissuade my boyfriend from anal sex?” Now, the girls come and ask the sex counsellors, “What pills can I take to prevent it hurting like hell?” All this in a period of only fifteen years, which began when anal sex was introduced in pornography as a common sex variant, in the mid-90s approximately.

Today, it is not unheard of for straight kids to become hooked on transsexual porn, autoerotic asphyxiation, bondage or violent rape porn. It can be very unnerving for them to be having erections/orgasms to material that conflicts with their self-image.

What’s a parent to do?

Would your child discuss his porn escalation or disturbing symptoms with you? And if he does, will you be able to explain why today’s porn is riskier than erotica of the past? Can you give practical advice about managing sexual desire and masturbation? Most parents cross their fingers, remind themselves that they survived encounters with Playboy, and hope their kids will figure things out for themselves.

Yet today’s porn is nothing like Playboy. It’s video, so the user can effortlessly imagine himself in a role. It’s always novel, and there’s no limit to how much can be viewed. Even after climax a user can keep going by clicking to something more shocking. The issue isn’t masturbation or whether content is “good” or “bad.” The issue is the effects of Internet porn’s extreme stimulation on the brain. 

Due to a search-engine fluke, my husband and I have been listening to the woes of recovering porn users for almost five years. More and more of them are in their twenties or even younger, and quite alarmed by the tenacity of their unwanted symptoms. They are grateful for clear explanations of how their brains have been affected and how to restore normal responsiveness. (For more, visit Your Brain On Porn.)

It’s difficult to know what to tell kids to help them steer for balance in today’s superstimulating environment. However, based on the stories we’ve been hearing, here are some suggestions. Whether or not you find them helpful, do find a way to discuss today’s porn with your child.

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Needy Boss with Holiday “Separation Anxiety?”

by Lynn Taylor

Published on December 12, 2010

Just as you’ve reached the final item on your pre-holiday checklist on your rare lunch break, your boss pops in to discuss what he’s busy working on. As you nod distractedly, you realize he’s waiting eagerly for your answer on your projects. As you turn off your computer and signal that you have to leave, the boss just keeps a long conversation going longer. Why now?

Holidays are already stressful when you’re in a hurry to finish up loose ends so you can make it out the door. Your boss may be a “Terrible Office Tyrant” or “TOT,” suffering from the equivalent of separation anxiety in children. The signs include a last minute barrage of questions, unreasonable requests or other obstacles as you try to ease into your holiday plans. And you end up with “vacation guilt syndrome.”

Needy Behavior

Why, when you’re about to take time off, does your boss start acting like a clinging child, yelling, “Mommy, don’t go!?” Most toddlers develop separation anxiety at some point because they lack the assurance that things and people exist when they can’t see them. They fear you’ll never come back. (Don’t get any ideas!) It’s legitimate for a manager to want to ensure that all bases covered when you’re gone, but when it causes unnecessary guilt or stress, that’s when you’ve entered the “TOT Zone.”

This may be an opportunity to set needed boundaries, albeit with a great deal of empathy and diplomacy. It certainly is a challenge, given the high unemployment rate – and the intimidating bad boss behavior you’re facing in the moment. But a little patience will go a long way in maintaining, if not solidifying your relationship. It will also soothe your nerves as you’re sipping your tropical drink somewhere far away.

Reassure That You’re Not Abandoning

TOTs small and adult-sized, can be fearful of abandonment, particularly if, in the case of the latter, it could hurt their own jobs or projects. Some TOTs can’t handle it when their employees leave the building for lunch, much less for an extra day or two. They need someone around constantly or they get frustrated with the pending projects.

Needy behavior may seem benign at first but can quickly cascade into one of 19 other classic bad boss traits, ranging from stubbornness,bullying, demanding and whining to moodiness. The trick is to be available as necessary and to reassure – but without compromising your own limits.

Taming A Needy TOT

If your boss suffers from holiday TOT separation anxiety, then follow these tips so you can have a truly relaxing vacation.

• Make solid plans in writing for who covers what while you’re on vacation.

• Provide a “to-do list” for your boss, which will reassure and suggest that your TOT can also take off without thinking about you.

• Once you have a plan in place, ask questions of your boss to see which areas are of most concern, if necessary.

• Remain unapologetic when requesting or taking the allotted time off if you’ve given ample notice. Everyone needs a break.

• Reassure the boss that a little break now will translate into a happier, more productive start to the New Year.

• Set clear limits; you don’t want to be skiing after already getting the ‘big freeze’ from the boss.

Remember, neediness is common in human nature. But you shouldn’t let your boss’s apprehension consume your life or let your holidays be hijacked. By managing your manager (or “parenting up without patronizing”) you’ll also humanize your workplace. You’ll have a healthier, happier start to 2011, and this skill will be of benefit with any future vacations, anywhere you work. Bon voyage!

Lowering The Drinking Age Is Unlikely To Curb College Binge Drinking

On December 10, 2010, in Public Health, Substance Abuse, by Christopher Fisher, PhD

Although presidents at some United States colleges have argued that lowering the minimum legal drinking age could help curb binge drinking on campuses, a new study in the January issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs suggests such a measure would be ineffective.

In 2008, a group of college presidents and chancellors formed the Amethyst Initiative, a call to rethink the current minimum legal drinking age of 21. They argue that the law encourages underage college students to drink at parties, where binge drinking is common. The main argument states that if students as young as 18 could legally drink in bars and restaurants, they might instead learn more moderate drinking habits, which could then lead to less binge drinking on college campuses.

So far, 135 college presidents have signed the Initiative’s public statement urging lawmakers to reconsider the legal drinking age.

But to simply lower the drinking age without an understanding of its effects would constitute a “radical experiment,” said Richard A. Scribner, M.D., M.P.H., of the Louisiana State University School of Public Health, one of the researchers on the new study.

So Scribner and colleagues at BioMedware Corporation in Ann Arbor, MI, and other institutions used a mathematical model to estimate the effects that a lower drinking age would have on college binge drinking.

The model, developed based on survey data from students at 32 U.S. colleges, aimed to evaluate the “misperception effect” emphasized by the Amethyst Initiative – that is, the idea that underage students widely perceive “normal” drinking levels to be higher than they actually are and that students would adjust their own habits if they were surrounded by social drinkers rather than binge-drinking party-goers.

Overall, the researchers found that the campuses that were most likely to see a decline in binge drinking from a lowered legal drinking age were those that had the poorest enforcement of underage drinking laws – being surrounded, for instance, by bars that do not check identification – and a significant level of student misperception of “normal” drinking (that is, students thinking that the average fellow student drinks much more than he or she actually does). If misperception levels were not present or were at the levels shown by the survey data, these campuses would likely see more binge-drinking if the legal age were lowered.

On “drier” campuses, the study found, student misperceptions would have to be even greater.

“The higher the level of enforcement of underage drinking laws, the higher the level of misperception would have to be for the Amethyst Initiative to have any hope of being effective,” explained lead researcher Dr. Jawaid W. Rasul, of BioMedware Corporation. “The misperception effect would have to be extremely large.”

And without data supporting the existence of such high levels of student misperception, Rasul said, lowering the legal drinking age would be unlikely to curb college binge drinking.

Scribner also pointed out that lowering the drinking age would not only affect college students but all currently underage young adults. And past research has suggested that when alcohol becomes more readily accessible to young people, alcohol-related problems, such as drunk driving, go up.

Material adapted from Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Rasul, J. W., Rommell, R. G., Jacquez, G. M., Fitzpatrick, B. G., Ackleh, A. S., Simonsen, N., & Scribner, R. A. (January 2011). Heavy Episodic Drinking on College Campuses: Does Changing the Legal Drinking Age Make a Difference? Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 72 (1), 15- 23.

Brain Imaging Confirms That Zen Meditation Reduces Pain Sensitivity

On December 9, 2010, in Brain Imaging, Meditation, by Christopher Fisher, PhD

Zen meditation has many health benefits, including a reduced sensitivity to pain. According to new research from the Université de Montréal, meditators do feel pain but they simply do not dwell on it as much. These findings, published in the month’s issue of Pain, may have implications for chronic pain sufferers, such as those with arthritis, back pain or cancer.

“Our previous research found that Zen meditators have lower pain sensitivity. The aim of the current study was to determine how they are achieving this,” says senior author Pierre Rainville, researcher at the Université de Montréal and the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal.

“Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we demonstrated that although the meditators were aware of the pain, this sensation wasn’t processed in the part of their brains responsible for appraisal, reasoning or memory formation. We think that they feel the sensations, but cut the process short, refraining from interpretation or labelling of the stimuli as painful.”

Training the brain

Rainville and his colleagues compared the response of 13 Zen meditators to 13 non-meditators to a painful heat stimulus. Pain perception was measured and compared with functional MRI data. The most experienced Zen practitioners showed lower pain responses and decreased activity in the brain areas responsible for cognition, emotion, and memory (the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus). In addition, there was a decrease in the communication between a part of the brain that senses the pain and the prefrontal cortex.

“Our findings lead to new insights into mind/brain function,” says first author, Joshua Grant, a doctoral student at the Université de Montréal. “These results challenge current concepts of mental control, which is thought to be achieved by increasing cognitive activity or effort. Instead, we suggest it is possible to self-regulate in a more passive manner, by ‘turning off’ certain areas of the brain, which in this case are normally involved in processing pain.”

“The results suggest that Zen meditators may have a training-related ability to disengage some higher-order brain processes, while still experiencing the stimulus,” says Rainville. “Such an ability could have widespread and profound implications for pain and emotion regulation and cognitive control. This behaviour is consistent with the mindset of Zen and with the notion of mindfulness.”

Material adapted from University of Montreal.

“A non-elaborative mental stance and decoupling of executive and pain-related cortices predicts low pain sensitivity in Zen meditators” was authored by Joshua A. Grant, Jérôme Courtemanche and Pierre Rainville from the Université de Montréal. Pain.