What Does Meth do to Your Brain?Anna Ciulla
Methamphetamine (meth, crystal meth) is a synthetic stimulant designed to target the central nervous system (CNS). The illicit and wildly popular narcotic is mass produced in underground laboratories and frequently mixed with other illicit drugs or toxic ingredients, many of which can be easily purchased at drug stores or supermarkets. Methamphetamine carries stiff criminal penalties for improper sales and distribution and joins a list of other deadly substances at the epicenter of the US drug trade.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), methamphetamine is a highly addictive and volatile substance, and chronic use carries potentially life-altering consequences. The drug, which is available as white rocks, crystalized powder or glass-like fragments, represents a multi-billion dollar-a-year industry and considerable public health threat. In addition to the lives meth regularly claims in the form of overdose, accidents, and violent altercations, it is devastating to the human brain and can cause a multitude of long-term and irreversible changes. Research gleaned from the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences and Journal of Pharmacological Research, as well as numerous independent clinical studies, implicates methamphetamine in adverse effects to the following brain structures, functions and regions:
GLIOGENESIS AND WHITE MATTER
The CNS and brain are comprised of a vast network of neurons, pathways and additional cells called glial cells that help facilitate signaling, myelin (a fatty layer of white matter used by neurons to communicate) production and fight viral or bacterial invaders. Chronic meth use has been linked to the destruction of glial cells in multiple brain regions including the prefrontal cortex, which is vital to healthy cognitive function. Especially in users under the age of 25, the age at which the prefrontal cortex is fully developed in most people, methamphetamine damages a number of key cognitive processes including memory, planning, focus, judgment, motor function, emotional control and abstract thinking. This assault on cognition eventually leads to lowered inhibitions, a short, erratic attention span, and dangerous impulsivity.
As glial cells are destroyed and myelin production damaged, the necessary white matter in the brain and spinal cord diminish. Since myelin is essential to neuronal signaling, the brain becomes impaired—beset by multiple cognitive and functional deficits. Although the brain can withstand a certain amount of methamphetamine use, extended abuse virtually guarantees significant damage.
Methamphetamine artificially elevates neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin that are often referred to as the brain’s “feel good chemicals,” or “pleasure and reward system.” Despite the euphoric high associated with this fleeting state, a crash inevitably follows. Transporters are special cells located in the brain and throughout the CNS that help remove dopamine and serotonin from the synaptic cleft—the space between neurons where these neurotransmitters are released—and recycle them for future use. Unfortunately, methamphetamine’s manipulation of dopamine and serotonin levels causes their long-term depletion, resulting in erratic moods, depression, apathy and sometimes anhedonia (the total loss of pleasure).
GLUTAMATE, CALCIUM AND NEUROTOXICITY
Like dopamine and serotonin, glutamate plays a significant role in pleasure and is considered an “excitatory neurotransmitter.” Artificially elevated glutamate and calcium levels eventually lead to neurotoxicity by stimulating neuronal firing and excitability to the point where it causes systemic damage and widespread dysfunction throughout the CNS. After extensive meth use, the brain becomes a chaotic, uncoordinated mess, over-ridden with toxins and unable to self-regulate. In many ways, the methamphetamine-damaged brain mirrors the cognitive dysfunction associated with traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).
Methamphetamine causes serious circulatory impairment. Its potent psycho-stimulant properties increase blood pressure, damage arteries and veins, create blood clots and leave serious scarring. In some cases, meth exponentially increases the likelihood of a user having a hemorrhagic or ischemic stroke. Although both strokes are caused by different forms of CNS damage, the resulting complications are often debilitating and extremely difficult to treat. In some cases, they occur suddenly and without warning.
Methamphetamine is responsible for a long-list of additional cognitive and functional damages (and deficits) that all negatively impact the brain. Neuronal death, for example, is an irreversible loss of neurons in the CNS. Although the human brain has a limited innate capacity to regenerate neurons, it is usually damaged beyond repair after extensive methamphetamine use. The following list provides a brief synopsis of brain regions and functions negatively affected by neuronal death:
- The striatum—a subcortical structure that is part of the “motor and reward system,” it is considered critical to voluntary movement and directed attention
- The cerebellum—a brain region designed to regulate movement and control numerous cognitive functions
- The hippocampus—a brain region responsible for memory, especially long-term memory, spatial navigation, and emotional regulation
- The posterior parietal cortex—a brain region that helps facilitate visualization, planned movement, and non-verbal memorization
Although scientific research is still in the early stages of understanding the total impact of methamphetamine addiction on the human brain, findings are universally clear that it is a highly destructive force —one that that frequently results in the loss of autonomy and, ultimately, happiness. The best defense against methamphetamine addiction is never taking the drug in the first place, thereby preserving brain capacity and optimizing cognitive function.
THE NECESSITY OF TREATMENT
If you or someone you love is struggling with methamphetamine addiction, call a substance abuse professional today. Never delay or avoid facing the truth when it comes to the need for seeking treatment. Methamphetamine is an extremely dangerous drug that maims and kills. Professional, medically managed detox is required in order to help users stabilize from the debilitating, and possibly deadly, effects of the drug.
And remember, methamphetamine overdose is considered a medical emergency. Call an ambulance immediately or seek treatment in a hospital emergency room (ER), where proper care and life-saving interventions can be administered.
For more about meth addiction and recovery, check out these related articles:
- “Should You Consider Traveling for Treatment?”
- “How Family Therapy Can Improve Communication Skills in Recovery”
- “Recovery from Drugs and Alcohol Starts Sooner Than You Think: the Early Benefits of Treatment”
- “7 Benefits of Inpatient Rehab”
Journal of Pharmacological Research. Methamphetamine: Effects on the brain, gut and immune system. June, 2017.
Neuroscience Fundamentals. The Brain and Methamphetamine. Sept, 2011.
Fundamentals in Neuroscience. Methamphetamine effects on blood-brain barrier structure and function. March, 2015.
The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences. Neuropsychological Effects of Chronic Methamphetamine Use on Neurotransmitters and Cognition: A Review. Aug, 2003.