Archives of Toxicology

, Volume 86, Issue 8, pp 1167–1231 | Cite as

Toxicity of amphetamines: an update

  • Márcia Carvalho
  • Helena Carmo
  • Vera Marisa Costa
  • João Paulo Capela
  • Helena Pontes
  • Fernando Remião
  • Félix Carvalho
  • Maria de Lourdes BastosEmail author
Review Article


Amphetamines represent a class of psychotropic compounds, widely abused for their stimulant, euphoric, anorectic, and, in some cases, emphathogenic, entactogenic, and hallucinogenic properties. These compounds derive from the β-phenylethylamine core structure and are kinetically and dynamically characterized by easily crossing the blood–brain barrier, to resist brain biotransformation and to release monoamine neurotransmitters from nerve endings. Although amphetamines are widely acknowledged as synthetic drugs, of which amphetamine, methamphetamine, and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, ecstasy) are well-known examples, humans have used natural amphetamines for several millenniums, through the consumption of amphetamines produced in plants, namely cathinone (khat), obtained from the plant Catha edulis and ephedrine, obtained from various plants in the genus Ephedra. More recently, a wave of new amphetamines has emerged in the market, mainly constituted of cathinone derivatives, including mephedrone, methylone, methedrone, and buthylone, among others. Although intoxications by amphetamines continue to be common causes of emergency department and hospital admissions, it is frequent to find the sophism that amphetamine derivatives, namely those appearing more recently, are relatively safe. However, human intoxications by these drugs are increasingly being reported, with similar patterns compared to those previously seen with classical amphetamines. That is not surprising, considering the similar structures and mechanisms of action among the different amphetamines, conferring similar toxicokinetic and toxicological profiles to these compounds. The aim of the present review is to give an insight into the pharmacokinetics, general mechanisms of biological and toxicological actions, and the main target organs for the toxicity of amphetamines. Although there is still scarce knowledge from novel amphetamines to draw mechanistic insights, the long-studied classical amphetamines—amphetamine itself, as well as methamphetamine and MDMA, provide plenty of data that may be useful to predict toxicological outcome to improvident abusers and are for that reason the main focus of this review.


Amphetamines Amphetamine Methamphetamine 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine Pharmacokinetics Hyperthermia Oxidative stress Neurotoxicity Cardiovascular toxicity Hepatotoxicity Rhabdomyolysis Nephrotoxicity 





Area under the curve


Maximum concentration


Central nervous system




Cerebrospinal fluid


Cytochrome P450




Dopamine transporter


2,3-Dihydroxybenzoic acid


Disseminated intravascular coagulation






3,4-Dihydroxyphenylacetic acid


Effective concentration 50%


Electron respiratory chain


European Union


Functional magnetic resonance imaging


Gamma-aminobutyric acid


Glial fibrillary acidic protein


Glutathione peroxidase


Glutathione redutase


Glutathione (reduced form)


Glutathione S-transferase


γ-Glutamyl transpeptidase or γ-glutamyltransferase




5-Hydroxyindoleacetic acid


4-Hydroxy-3-methoxyamphetamine, 3-O-Me-α-MeDA


4-Hydroxy-3-methoxymethamphetamine; 3-O-Me-N-Me-α-MeDA


Hydroxyl radical


5-Hydroxytryptamine, Serotonin


Serotonin transporter; SERT


4-Hydroxy-3-methoxyphenylacetic acid, Homovanillic acid








Elimination constant




Lysergic acid diethylamide


Monoamine oxidase


Monoamine oxidase inhibitor






(±)-3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, “Ecstasy”


α-Methyldopamine, 3,4-Dihydroxyamphetamine, HHA






Mitochondrial DNA


Mitochondrial permeability transition






Noradrenaline transporter


N-methyl-d-aspartic acid


N-methyl-α-methyldopamine, 3,4-Dihydroxymethamphetamine, HHMA


Nitric oxide radical


Superoxide anion




Positron emission tomography






Protein kinase C


Per os




Reactive nitrogen species


Reactive oxygen species






Single-photon emission computed tomography


Superoxide dismutase




Elimination half-life


Tyrosine hydroxylase




Median time to maximum concentration


Tryptophan hydroxylase




United Kingdom


United States of America


Vesicular monoamine transporter


Wild type



The authors are grateful to Fundaçãopara a CiênciaeTecnologia (FCT) for grant Pest C/EQB/LA0006/2011 and to the project [PTDC/SAU-FCF/102958/2008]-QREN initiative with EU/FEDER financing through COMPETE. VMC and JPC acknowledge FCT for their Post-doc grants (SFRH/BPD/63746/2009 and SFRH/BPD/30776/2006).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Márcia Carvalho
    • 1
    • 2
  • Helena Carmo
    • 1
  • Vera Marisa Costa
    • 1
  • João Paulo Capela
    • 1
    • 2
  • Helena Pontes
    • 1
  • Fernando Remião
    • 1
  • Félix Carvalho
    • 1
  • Maria de Lourdes Bastos
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1. REQUIMTE, Laboratory of Toxicology, Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of PharmacyUniversity of PortoPortoPortugal
  2. 2.Faculty of Health SciencesUniversity Fernando PessoaPortoPortugal

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