Methamphetamine and the effects on the brain

Methamphetamine and the effects on the brain

  • Meth releases extra dopamine, creating an intense rush of pleasure or prolonged sense of euphoria.
  • Over time, meth destroys dopamine receptors, making it impossible to feel pleasure.
  • Even though these pleasure centers can heal over time, study suggests that damage to individual’s cognitive abilities might be permanent.
  • Chronic meth abuse may lead to psychotic behavior, such as paranoia, insomnia, anxiety, extreme aggression, delusions and hallucinations, and even fatality.

“There [are] whole different reasons to try methamphetamine,” explains Dr. Richard Rawson, associate director of UCLA’s Integrated Substance Abuse Programs. “Nonetheless, once they try the drug … their reasons are pretty much the same: They like how it affects their brain[s].” Meth users have described this feeling as an abrupt rush of pleasure lasting for numerous minutes, followed by a euphoric high that lasts between six and 12 hours, and it is the result of drug causing the brain to release excessive quantities of the chemical dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates pleasure. All drugs of abuse cause the release of dopamine, even alcohol and nicotine, explains Rawson, “[But] methamphetamine produces the mother of all dopamine releases.”

For instance, in lab experiments done on animals, sex causes dopamine levels to increase from 100 to 200 units, and cocaine causes them to spike to 350 units. “[With] methamphetamine, you get a release from the base level to approximately 1,250 units, something that’s approximately 12 times as much of a release of dopamine as you get from food and sex and other pleasurable activities,” Rawson says. “This really doesn’t happen from any normally rewarding activity. That’s one of the reasons why individuals, when they use methamphetamine, report having this euphoric [feeling] that’s unlike anything they’ve ever experienced.” Then, when the effects wear off, individuals experience serious depression and feel the need to keep taking the drug to avoid the crash.

When addicts take meth over and over again, the drug actually modifies their brain chemistry, destroying the wiring in the brain’s pleasure centers and making it increasingly impossible to experience any pleasure at all. Even though studies have demonstrated that these tissues can grow back over time, the process can take years, and the repair might never be complete. A paper published by Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, examines brain scans of numerous meth abusers who, after 14 months of abstinence from the drug, have regrown the majority of their damaged dopamine receptors; nonetheless, they showed no improvement in the cognitive abilities damaged by the drug. After over a year’s sobriety, these former meth users still demonstrated severe impairment in memory, judgment and motor coordination, similar to symptoms seen in individuals suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.

Additionally to affecting cognitive abilities, these modifications in brain chemistry may lead to disturbing, even violent behavior. Meth causes the brain to release elevated doses of adrenaline, the body’s “fight or flight” mechanism, inducing anxiety, wakefulness and intensely focused attention, called “tweaking.” When individuals are tweaking, they show hyperactive and obsessive behavior, as journalist Thea Singer’s sister Candy did on her meth binges. “When she was high, which was nearly always, she had to be on the computer — diddling with programs to make them run faster, ordering freebies on the Internet,” writes Singer. “Then computers faded, and she was obsessed with diving into dumpsters — rescuing audio equipment from behind Radio Shack, pens from behind Office Depot.” Heavy, chronic meth consumption can also prompt psychotic behavior, like paranoia, aggression, hallucinations and delusions. Certain meth addicts have been known to feel insects crawling under their skin. “He picks and picks and picks at himself, like there are bugs inside his face,” the mother of one meth addict told Newsweek. “He tears his clothes off and ties them around his head.” The same article told the story of another former meth addict, who, even after five years of sobriety, can’t go to the bathroom without propping a space heater against the door, in case somebody is after him.