Public Health

Study Shows Reddit’s Potential as an Early Warning System for New Designer Drugs

In a new study, researchers demonstrated the use of data mining of social networks like Reddit to predict increased use of novel psychoactive substances (NPS).

Reddit is a social network and media aggregator divided into subreddits pertaining to certain topics, like college football, art, movies, and world news. Niche subreddits exist for many topics, including specific drugs.

Users on subreddits like r/ResearchChemicals discuss designer drugs (including analogs) and other newly discovered substances. Analogs are two drug compounds that have similar molecular structures and/or effects. Sometimes, an analog of an illegal drug has similar effects and properties to its illegal counterpart but has yet to be made illegal.

Under the Federal Analogue Act, compounds “substantially similar” to controlled substances are meant to be treated as if they were the controlled substances themselves. However, designer drugs are often overlooked or may take years for federal authorities to address.

Reddit post on “research chemicals” subreddit discussing novel psychoactive substances.

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University, the University of Florida, and New York University gathered and analyzed data on mentions of newly discovered NPS on Reddit. They found that users mentioned certain NPS months to years before the substances became prevalent in toxicology reports. Such reports are conducted to identify a culprit substance when a patient has overdosed or is subjected to a toxic exposure.

The study mentioned that NPS mentioned on Reddit before any exposures were recorded include:

  • Carfentanil
  • U-47700
  • Eutylone
  • Flualprazolam
  • N-ethylpentylone
  • Isotonitazene
  • Brorphine

Carfentanil, for example, was first mentioned on Reddit in February 2013–almost 4 years before its first reported exposure in October 2016.

Reddit mentions of N-ethylpentylone peaked 5 months before the number of reported cases. (Barenholtz et al, 2021)

The study found that seven of the eight analyzed NPS were mentioned on Reddit before there were any reported cases of the substances in toxicology reports.

Five of the eight analyzed NPS peaked in Reddit mentions months before the substances peaked in reported exposures.

The researchers posit that these data mining methods could prove to be a useful tool for early detection of NPS trends by public health authorities and legislatures.

This article is based on the following works:

– Barenholtz et al. (2021, August 5). Online surveillance of novel psychoactive substances (NPS): Monitoring Reddit discussions as a predictor of increased NPS-related exposures.