Altmetric Blog

Interactions: The Consumer and the Scientist (Part 2)

Guest Author, 21st May 2014

Sarah MacLeod, graduate student at Dalhousie University

Sarah MacLeod

This is Part 2 of a special guest blog post by Sarah MacLeod, who has an MSc in Cardiovascular Physiology and Biophysics from Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada). Her article was selected to appear on the Altmetric blog, following the conclusion of a Interactions-style blogging project run by Dalhousie’s Department of Pharmacology and Altmetric (more details here).

 

Catch up on Part 1 of this post from last week.

Exercise Addiction: Passion or Problem?

Old New Year’s resolutions and the recent Sochi Winter Olympics may have you inspired to hit the gym. As a result, you may have also found yourself in the health food aisles or supplement stores, scanning the big tubs of protein powders. But be aware. Recently, several athletes failed urine drug tests after they unknowingly ingested a banned substance. The banned chemical in question is N,α-diethylphenethylamine (N,α-DEPEA), which has a similar chemical structure to methamphetamine, and it was recently discovered in a mainstream dietary supplement called Craze.

Craze, the 2012 new Supplement of the Year and a 2013 Pre-Workout Supplement of the Year nominee, is a pre-workout supplement used for increased alertness, energy, and weight loss. Its claim to fame is Dendrobex, also known as dendrobium orchid extract. This natural plant stem extract is comprised of several organic compounds from a class of chemicals called phenylethylamines. The class of phenylethylamine chemicals includes compounds known for their psychoactive and stimulant effects. Therefore, this natural ingredient was investigated as the source of N,α-DEPEA. Cohen et al. published an article in October 2013 in Drug Testing and Analysis where they studied a sample of the implicated supplement from three separate suppliers from both the US and Europe. Powerful and sensitive techniques were used to isolate the specific compound in question, and N,α-DEPEA was identified in all three samples. These findings were confirmed by studying the structure of the isolated compound. It was estimated that the 5 gram suggested serving would contain 21-35 milligrams of the potentially dangerous designer drug. This is not an insignificant amount, and therefore cannot be written off as a minor contaminant of the manufacturing process.

Though the exact pharmacological and toxicological effects of N,α-DEPEA are not all known, at the suggested dose it seems the compound may be producing the stimulatory effects characteristic of pre-workout powders. N,α-DEPEA was patented in 1988 by Knoll Pharmaceuticals for having psychoactive effects. Its mechanism of action may be the same as amphetamine and methamphetamine. Amphetamine and its related compounds act by changing the direction of pumps at the brain cell membrane. This effectively increases the amount of neurotransmitter in the cell causing a pump to move large amounts of dopamine out of the cell (this is the opposite of its normal role). Dopamine release stimulates the reward and motivation regions of the brain which can result in addiction. This is a potentially dangerous implication of N,α-DEPEA and its use in commonly acquired products.

While the jury is still out on the safety of Craze, and other dietary supplements for that matter, this article garnered a large amount of international attention (see Altmetric article details page). The findings were reported in a wide variety of news outlets, from general news sources such as USA Today, Epoch Times, and the Huffington Post, to those with specific target audiences, such as Business Insider, Medical Daily, and Runner’s World. Healthcare professionals (such as this sports dietitian) and the general public seemed to be focused on spreading awareness and feelings of shock. One tweet raised the obvious consumer surprise that N,α-DEPEA had never been tested in humans before if it was to be sold for consumption. This concern is also supported by Dr. Cohen, who said in a public statement released by the National Science Foundation that “the health risk of using supplements adulterated with a drug should not be underestimated.” This is indeed “scary stuff” and I’m sure all consumers are impatiently awaiting further testing results.

 

Do Your Research

The three articles described Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog post have brought to the foreground the controversial topic of what is legally required to be disclosed by producers in order to ensure consumer awareness and safety. While legislation is working towards holding businesses responsible for health concerns (such as in the tanning bed example), it is vital that the public consults the latest data on products they are using. In terms of sport supplements, a sport nutritionist and dietitian shared a website called Informed-Sport, and encouraged pre-workout supplement users to only use products tested and accredited by the sport anti-doping lab HFL Sport Science:

Another example of a contaminated supplement: http://t.co/talF8H7mdH .If you want a supplement, go for HFL tested: http://t.co/BrNWyqimrf

— N. Paraskevopulos (@eat2succeed) October 14, 2013

A common theme in the reactions from members of the public was that the “proof is in the peer-reviewed journal article”, and that they would trust evidence supported by scientific research. Therefore, it seems that consumers may have a gut feeling about the contaminant rumours or safety concerns, but they may not take serious precautions until there are scientific results to back up the claims. This highlights an important responsibility of the scientific world in the general, consumer population, as well as on social media, where safety information can reach a large amount of people in a short period of time.

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