Dissociative anesthetics distort people’s sensory perceptions (e.g., sight, sound, sense of time) and can make them feel as if they are, in a sense, detached from reality. People who take dissociative drugs may feel separated from the world around them and partially or completely detached from their own senses, which can be a terrifying experience that can occur in those who take moderate-to-severe doses of ketamine.
How Do Dissociative Drugs Work?
Researchers believe that dissociative anesthetics work by changing the activity of glutamate, a brain chemical that is important for memory and learning, perceiving pain and emotional processes, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Dopamine, another brain chemical that plays an important role in pleasure and reward, is responsible for the “high” produced by addictive drugs and is also affected by dissociative drugs such as phencyclidine (PCP).
Effects of Dissociative Drugs
The effects of dissociative anesthetics vary according to the dose and the particular drug that is taken by the user. At low-to-moderate doses, dissociative drugs can produce a range of symptoms including:
- Visual and sound distortions
- Changes in a person’s sense of time
- Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not really there)
- Increased blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature and respiration
Typically, higher doses of dissociative drugs have the ability to produce more unpredictable effects and can lead to:
- Memory loss
- Extreme panic
- Exaggerated sense of strength
People who take dissociative drugs with alcohol or other CNS depressants are also at a greater risk for experiencing fatal respiratory problems.
Types of Dissociative Drugs
The three primary types of dissociative drugs include ketamine, PCP and dextromethorphan (DXM).
Ketamine — also referred to as special K, super K, Cat Valium and K — is a dissociative anesthetic that is commonly used in human and veterinary medicine for its pain-relieving and amnesic properties. People who take ketamine can experience sedation, memory loss and the inability to move, along with the primary effects of dissociative anesthetics, such as feelings of detachment, hallucinations and sensory distortions.
PCP, also referred to as angel dust, is a synthetic dissociative anesthetic that can be snorted, smoked, ingested or injected. PCP users can become violent or aggressive, or experience psychotic symptoms when they take moderate-to-high doses. Similar to ketamine, people who abuse PCP can also experience major problems such as serious, respiratory distress and cardiovascular effects.
DXM is a psychoactive drug found in cough and cold medications that, according to the NIDA, produces short-term effects such as:
- Slurred speech
- Increased blood pressure, body temperature and heart rate
- Nausea and vomiting
- Movement problems
While DXM can be safely used for suppressing a cough, taking large doses of the drug for its dissociative effects can be extremely dangerous. People who take DXM can develop other health-related issues such as breathing problems and seizures.