With the benzodiazepines, we have substances with anxiolytic (fear-dissolving) properties. Next to being sleep aids, especially in cases of severe insomnia, they are commonly prescribed against panic attacks, and sometimes to deal with intense, prolonged anxiety (although they should not be used continuously as they have a very strong tendency to cause addiction).
Benzodiazepines (or benzos, as they are commonly abbreviated) work by a mechanism known as positive allosteric modulation (PAM) of GABA receptors, which are certain structures in the nervous system associated with wakefulness and sleep, anxiety and panic, as well as muscle control (including convulsions and epileptic fits, which is why they are also used in case of epileptic seizures).
But if we can affect a signaling pathway inside our nervous system that causes a reduction of feelings of fear, would it be possible to affect that system in the reverse way, creating fear or even panic? It turns out that this is very possible. There are a number of substances with anxiogenic (fear-producing) properties. One that uses the same mechanism as the fear-releasing benzodiazepines, but in reverse, is DMCM, which can actually put users into a state of panic.
By extension of this idea, if we have substances that cause euphoria, we should expect to be able to modify them to cause the reverse effect, dysphoria. I haven’t researched specifically dysphoria-causing substances yet, but I’m sure they exist.
We do have substances that cause depression, as a counterpart to antidepressant agents. One example that I find quite remarkable (and scary) is Rimonabant, which is an inverse agonist at the cannabinoid receptor CB1, that is, it causes the reverse effect of cannabinoids. This compound was developed as a weight-loss medication, as it was well known that cannabinoids stimulate appetite (»food binges«), so a substance with the reverse effect would cause a reduction in appetite. This did work, but it also produced depression to a degree that the medicine had to be removed from the market, as users were becoming suicidal.
So if there are drugs that can make us euphoric, relaxed, fearless, sleepy, painless – or put us into any »positive« (pleasant or desirable) physical or mental state –, we should expect there to be drugs that can do the opposite. As such effects are rarely sought after in an individual, they are mostly used for research. For instance, anxiogenics may be used to first induce fear in a subject, to then test the efficacy of anxiolytic (fear-relieving) substances.
But those substances could also get into the wrong hands. I could imagine that such drugs can be used for torture. I certainly wouldn’t want to receive a cocktail of anxiogenic, depressogenic and dysphoriant agents.
Learning about such pharmacological possibilites made me increasingly aware that affecting our body and mind through chemical means is a great opportunity and power, but it requires great responsibility. All substances may be used for »good« and »bad«. Let’s always remind ourselves of this fact, and remain respectful of, and careful with, whatever powerful medicines we put inside ourselves, or allow others to do so.