Colorless, odorless, and tasteless drugs are slipped into the glasses of thousands of unexpected drinkers every year. Rohypnol, also known as "roofies" or the "date rape drug," powerfully mimics alcohol poisoning; and many times victims wind up in the hospital. A group of scientists from Loughborough University in the UK teamed up with the University of Cordoba in Spain and set out to invent a quicker way to tell the difference between a drunk and a drugged person. Their study, published in the Journal of Breath Research, aims to dramatically decrease the amount of time it takes to diagnose patients experiencing drug-related symptoms.

"Many people attending accident and emergency departments have some kind of alcohol-related issue, particularly at the weekends," said the study's co-author Paul Thomas, a professor of analytical science at Loughborough University, in a press release. "We're aiming to develop a test that is as simple as taking temperature with a thermometer that detects when patients are more than just drunk."

For the experiment, which was first proposed in 2009, researchers created a test that could detect the difference between all different kinds of alcohols and drugs, including the sedative roofie drug γ-hydroxybutyric acid, using chemical reactions. When drugs reacted a certain way with saliva, it would indicate to researchers what it was. Next, researchers recruited three healthy adult males with no history of smoking to provide saliva samples. Researchers mixed the saliva with each of the alcohols and drugs being tested, and within three hours of the saliva being collected, concentrations of the alcohol spiked with roofies changed entirely, making it easy to differentiate between the two.

"It was particularly challenging stabilizing concentrations low enough to be realistic simulations of what you'd expect to find clinically," Thomas said. "But we've managed to make some sensitive measurements — which is quite pleasing as saliva is a particularly complicated material to work with due to the presence of bacteria and their metabolites from the mouth. We were surprised at the ease at which we could detect γ-hydroxybutyric acid."

Date rape drugs, like γ-hydroxybutyric acid, have very powerful effects on the body, especially if the drink is mixed with alcohol, which is often the case. In one year, nearly 15,000 men and women found themselves in an emergency department after being roofied — more than 6,000 of whom drank drugged drinks. According to the Office on Women's Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, you may look and act like someone who is drunk, meaning you may have trouble balancing; slurred speech; overall communication, and possibly pass out. The drugs are often used to incapacitate people and create an opportunity for sexual assault.

"We're hoping to demonstrate that this test will be simple, effective and useful for clinicians to use," Thomas said. "I think this is a very exciting area of research and in the next few years there will be a host of simple tests on breath, skin and saliva that will aid with diagnosis in hospitals."

Source: Criado-Garc í a I, Ruszkiewicz DM, Eiceman GA, Thomas CLP. A rapid and non-invasive method to determine toxic levels of alcohols and γ-hydroxybutyric acid in saliva samples by gas chromatography — differential mobility spectrometry. Journal of Breath Research. 2016.