Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry

, Volume 407, Issue 16, pp 4567–4580 | Cite as

Wide-range screening of psychoactive substances by FIA–HRMS: identification strategies

  • Élida Alechaga
  • Encarnación MoyanoEmail author
  • Maria Teresa Galceran
Research Paper


Recreational drugs (illicit drugs, human and veterinary medicines, legal highs, etc.) often contain lacing agents and adulterants which are not related to the main active ingredient. Serious side effects and even the death of the consumer have been related to the consumption of mixtures of psychoactive substances and/or adulterants, so it is important to know the actual composition of recreational drugs. In this work, a method based on flow injection analysis (FIA) coupled with high-resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS) is proposed for the fast identification of psychoactive substances in recreational drugs and legal highs. The FIA and HRMS working conditions were optimized in order to detect a wide range of psychoactive compounds. As most of the psychoactive substances are acid–base compounds, methanol–0.1 % aqueous formic acid (1:1 v/v) as a carrier solvent and electrospray in both positive ion mode and negative ion mode were used. Two data acquisition modes, full scan at high mass resolution (HRMS) and data-dependent tandem mass spectrometry (ddMS/HRMS) with a quadrupole–Orbitrap mass analyzer were used, resulting in sufficient selectivity for identification of the components of the samples. A custom-made database containing over 450 substances, including psychoactive compounds and common adulterants, was built to perform a high-throughput target and suspect screening. Moreover, online accurate mass databases and mass fragmenter software were used to identify unknowns. Some examples, selected among the analyzed samples of recreational drugs and legal highs using the FIA–HRMS(ddMS/HRMS) method developed, are discussed to illustrate the screening strategy used in this study. The results showed that many of the analyzed samples were adulterated, and in some cases the sample composition did not match that of the supposed marketed substance.


Psychoactive substances Flow injection analysis–high-resolution mass spectrometry Orbitrap Legal highs Screening 



The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial support received from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness under project CTQ2012-30836 and from the Agency for Administration of University and Research Grants (Generalitat de Catalunya, Spain) under project 2014 SGR-539. The Spanish NGO Cruz Roja is thanked for kindly providing the recreational drug samples.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Élida Alechaga
    • 1
  • Encarnación Moyano
    • 1
    Email author
  • Maria Teresa Galceran
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Analytical ChemistryUniversity of BarcelonaBarcelonaSpain

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