A Camdenton High School student recently won third place in the category of addiction science at an international science fair. Alaina Sonksen studied the effects of the synthetic drug known as "bath salts" to win an Addiction Science Award at the 2013 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) held in Phoenix, Ariz. May 12-17.
This year, about 1,500 students from 70 countries, regions and territories participated in the Intel ISEF competition, coordinated by the Society for Science and the Public. ISEF is the world's largest science competition for high school students. The Addiction Science Awards within ISEF are coordinated by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health, and Friends of NIDA, a coalition that supports NIDA's mission.
Sonksen initially completed the experiment for the science research class taught by Christopher Reeves.
Her project was called Determining the Behavioral and Physiological Effects of Pentedrone-Based Bath Salts on Drosophila melangaster. That's a mouthful, but essentially what she did is study the effects of two versions of "bath salts" on the common fruit fly.
But don't confuse them with Epsom salts — the salt crystals you actually toss in the bathtub to relax. "Bath salts" are merely marketed as such. They are actually an emerging family of drugs containing one or more synthetic chemicals related to cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant found naturally in the Khat plant. In addition to such drugs as methamphetamine, cathinone is also chemically similar to MDMA, or ecstasy, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
In the three trials of her study, Sonksen used Pentedrone, a synthetic cathinone that is currently an uncontrolled substance also used as a research chemical, and a brand name of bath salts called Pump It Powder.
"We bought the Pump It Powder from this sketchy website. We weren't sure whether we would really get it or not, but we did get it which shows how available it is," she says.
Sonksen checked with the Camden County Sheriff's Department before purchasing the drugs and then turned them over to the police once the study was complete.
Both substances were in powder form. Sonksen liquified the substances in an acetone solution and used a micropipette to apply each solution topically to two different groups of fruit flies and had an untreated control group as well.
Sonksen then studied the fruit flies' behavior specifically noting mortality, feeding patterns and activity levels.
The average mortality rate over the three trials for fruit flies in the control group was 10 percent. With Pentedrone it was 27 percent and with Pump It Powder 35 percent.
Analysis showed that the difference in rates was statistically significant, showing the effect of the drugs, says Sonksen.
Page 2 of 3 - She also noted behavioral changes. There was a decrease in feeding activity in many of the fruit flies treated with the drugs. Though generally deemed a stimulant, the bath salts seemed to put the flies in a daze rather than increasing their activity, showing that the drugs acted more like a hallucinogen.
While Sonksen did test the products for their general contents, she says it is difficult to know everything that is actually in these unregulated substances. Products sold as "bath salts" use generally similar substances but variations occur which could account for varying reactions.
The study just skims the surface of the effects and dangers of this synthetic drug, Sonksen says, but it has peaked her interest and she is considering more research.
"It's pretty fascinating," she says. "It's been exciting to work on something that's so relevant and meaningful."
Sonksen qualified to compete at the international science contest by finishing second place overall at a regional contest in Jefferson City.
Camdenton student Connor Burton also attended ISEF after placing first place overall at the contest in Jefferson City. His research project was Jellyfish Photo-taxis: Developing an Infrared Net for Application in Marine Systems for the Prevention of Jellyfish Fouling and Beach Infestations.
At the contests, the students present posters with graphics and information from their research.
Sonksen thanks her instructor, Mr. Reeves, for the all time he took to help her with the project.
"He also teaches biology, astronomy, meteorology. Science research isn't the only class he teaches, so the time he takes shows how much he cares about students," she says.
Sonksen selected the timely topic of bath salts after her family's interest was sparked by a town hall meeting in Linn Creek in 2011.
The Linn Creek Police Department held the meeting as part of an awareness program of the newly-popular drug which is sold under a myriad of brand names. The powder can be taken in different ways from snorting to mixing it with food and drink.
Sonksen's parents, Scott and Tammy Sonksen, attended the meeting and came home discussing what they could do to get the community more informed about the dangers of the drug.
Now an upcoming senior, Sonksen has not had a strong interest in science. She's not sure what she wants to do. At one point, she thought she wanted to be an English teacher and she's also considering a degree in business or marketing. Science, however, hadn't really entered the picture.
It was with encouragement from her parents that Sonksen decided to take the science research class her junior year even though it was far out of her comfort zone.
Page 3 of 3 - Casting about for a research subject last fall, Sonksen remembered her parents' interest in "bath salts" from the town hall meeting. And so, the project was born.
According to a press release from NIDA, Sonksen's project was the first look at bath salts by an ISEF finalist.
"A year ago I wasn't sure I wanted to do it, but I do like to challenge myself. At first I was skeptical, but it's been really awesome," she says. "Looking back, in the midst of of all the hard work of junior year, it was totally worth it. It's been fascinating to study a drug that's so readily available and frequently abused. And I've met some awesome kids at the competitions."
With her win in Phoenix, Sonksen received $1,000, but even better, she says, is her upcoming trip to Maryland. This summer, she has earned the opportunity to visit the National Institutes of Health where she'll tour the campus and visit with scientists there.
Beating out Sonksen for first place in Addiction Science was Zarin Rahman from Brookings, S.D. Her project, The At-Risk Maturing Brain: Effects of Stress Paradigms on Mood, Memory and Cognition in Adolescents and the Role of the Prefrontal Cortex, studied how screen time with electronic devices serves as a stressor and affects mood, academic performance and decision making. She asked 67 teens - divided into two groups - to take a series of tests measuring factors such as use of electronic devices, sleep patterns, anxiety, mood and attention and concluded that excessive screen time shapes adolescents' sleep patterns, compromising academic success and emotional health.
Second place went to Emory Payne and Zohaib Moonis from Worcester, Mass. Their project, The Effect of Ethanol on Beta Cell Development in Zebrafish, made a unique link between alcohol exposure during fetal development and type 1 diabetes. After exposing Zebrafish embryos to increasing concentrations of ethanol (a pure form of alcohol), the team observed degradation of pancreatic beta cells, which are needed to produce insulin. Poor beta cell functioning in the pancreas is directly linked to diabetes, leading the team to conclude there might be a link between alcohol use during pregnancy and type 1 diabetes.
An honorable mention award went to Gili Rusak from Latham, N.Y. for her project, Properties of Twitter Network Communications among Teenagers. Rusak demonstrated how Twitter could be used an effective social media platform for many health related messages, including drug abuse prevention.