How Do Designer Drugs Affect the Brain?

Designer drugs (or designer synthetic drugs) are created to mimic and replace the effects of other illicit substances such as marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines. These chemicals can be dangerous because there is no certainty of what is in the drugs or how they are made. What’s more, they can cause unpredictable highs that vary from person to person.

We’re going to look at what designer drugs are and how they affect the brain.

What Are Designer Drugs?

Designer drugs are substances created in a laboratory by people rather than occurring in the natural world. The manufacturer changes the properties of a drug to alter its chemical makeup. This results in a new drug with a similar effect on the user’s brain and behavior.

A few common designer drugs are:

  • Bath salts
  • Flakka
  • Spice
  • U-47700

Designer Drugs: How Do They Affect The Brain?

As a society, we continue to see an increase in addiction rates and deaths related to drug use. Recently, there has been a rise in people using designer synthetic drugs. What is most concerning is that these drugs are ever-changing. Each chemical makeup will affect the brain differently.

The effects of designer synthetic drugs vary depending upon the type used. However, there are four main categories:

  1. Stimulants
  2. Hallucinogens
  3. Opioids/opiates
  4. Cannabinoids

Effects of Designer Drugs

Within each category, some substances have similar effects. For example, stimulants mimic the effects of cocaine and methamphetamines, hallucinogens mimic LSD and ecstasy, and opioids/opiates mimic morphine and heroin, and cannabinoids mimic marijuana.

The following will discuss the specific effects of designer drugs in these categories:


The synthetic version of stimulants will typically increase dopamine levels within the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in almost all activities of daily living and is linked with reward-seeking behaviors.

Stimulant designer drugs can cause increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, a feeling of euphoria, restlessness or agitation, anxiety, paranoia, and insomnia.


The designer substance found in hallucinogen designer drugs will attempt to mimic the effects of LSD and MDMA (ecstasy).

This category can cause visual hallucinations, a distortion of reality, a change in sensory perception, anxiety, or paranoia. Hallucinogens are among the most dangerous drugs because the user may never know what they are taking, and the effects can be life-threatening. 


The opioid designer drugs will attempt to mimic heroin or morphine. This category can cause euphoria, drowsiness, sedation, and respiratory depression, sometimes leading to coma or death.

Fentanyl is likely the most well-known and dangerous of designer opioids. Synthetic opioids led to over 19,400 deaths in 2016.


The designer drugs in the cannabinoid category will attempt to mimic the effects of marijuana. Cannabinoid designer drugs are often sold as legal alternatives to marijuana with names such as K2 and Spice.

Some of the effects include altered perception, a relaxed state of mind, feelings of well-being, and a change in sensory perception. The user may also experience anxiety or paranoia, which can lead to dangerous behaviors.

According to Dr. Huestis of the NIDA, “Using Spice is very dangerous because the chemicals and compounds that are in it vary from batch to batch. You might buy a package one week, go back to the same place and buy the exact same package the next week, and the ingredients may be completely different. Not only are the ingredients unknown, but so is the strength of the drug.”

What Makes Designer Drugs Dangerous?

These designer drugs are dangerous because the user is unaware of what they are taking. Because there is no standard formula or consistency about how much or what is in the drug, it is very dangerous. These drugs can cause overdose and death because there is no way to control the purity or potency of designer drugs.

As we continue to see a rise in addiction rates and deaths related to these types of designer synthetic drugs, there needs to be more awareness about how they affect the brain and the damage they can cause.

Long-Term Effects on the Brain

The long-term effects on the brain can be very severe and damaging to the user. Some documented side effects include addiction, depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, and suicide. Designer drugs can cause many significant problems within the brain, and the consequences can be irreversible.

Designer drugs can be unpredictable and have resulted in thousands of deaths. If you or someone close to you is struggling with addiction, please contact NYC Addiction Resources for help finding an appropriate treatment provider. We’re here to offer support and resources so that anyone who wants a second chance at life has the opportunity. Reach out today if you need assistance locating a rehab center near New York City.