drug wars

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pharmacology: nitrous oxide

Word on the Street:

bolt, bullets, climax, locker room, rush, poppers, snappers. Nitrous oxide is a mild anesthetic that is inhaled to produce a euphoric rush followed by a reduction of pain and inhibitions and finally, drowsiness.

What is it?

Nitrous oxide was first synthesized in the 1700s as a colorless, almost odorless gas with great anesthetic and pain-relieving properties. The term "laughing gas" was coined because of the giddy state it produced. The gas is also used as a propellant in food aerosols. It is prepared by the action of zinc on dilute nitric acid, by the action of hydroxylamine hydrochloride (NH2OHxHCl) on sodium nitrite (NaNO2), and, most commonly, by the decomposition of ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3).

In the brain:

When inhaled, Nitrous oxide produces insensibility to pain preceded by mild hysteria, sometimes laughter.

In the body:

Nitrous oxide has little effects on body functions such as respiration, brain blood flow, and liver, kidney and gastrointestinal processes.

How it works:

The pharmacological mechanisms of nitrous oxide are not fully understood. It acts like a general anesthetic and under high pressure, can cause a loss of consciousness. Hence, experts suspect that it may increase GABA inhibition of nerve cells. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that prevents the pre-synaptic cells from transmitting. Part of its effect may also be through the brain's built in opiate system, the same receptors that morphine and heroin activate.

The Downside:

There three dangers that recreational users most commonly face: First, nitrous oxide is an anesthetic gas that can make the user unconscious or so disoriented that one loses good judgement. Problems occur when the user attempts to arrange a sort of mask or bag to deliver pure gas and breathe only nitrous oxide. The person is then asphyxiated by lack of oxygen. Second, there is physical damage to any tissues exposed to an expanding gas. If users try to inhale the gas right out of the tank with no regulation of the flow rate, they can actually injure their mouths, tracheas and lungs from the cooling gas. Also, there is a risk of overexpanding the lungs. Finally, prolonged nitrous oxide use can lead to a complication that is similar to a vitamin B-12 deficiency. A B-12 dependent enzyme is deactivated by nitrous oxide, leading to the destruction of nerve fibers or loss of feeling.

Kuhn, Cynthia, Scott Swartzwelder and Wilkie Wilson. Buzzed : the straight facts about the most used and abused drugs from alcohol to ecstasy. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.

portions reprinted from:
"nitrous oxide" Britannica.com. Vers. 2001
1999-2001. Encyclopædia Britannica.
1 Sep. 2000

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