How Does Meth Affect the Brain? – Methamphetamine (meth) is a synthetic central nervous system stimulant typically found in either a rock-like form (crystal meth) or as a powder. The most common method of administration is smoking it through a pipe, but it can also be snorted, swallowed, or injected.
Meth acts on the brain in a manner similar to other stimulants, in that use results in a massive release of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine. This influx leads to powerful euphoric effects, such as increases in energy, alertness, and feelings of invulnerability. Research concerning the short-term and long-term effects of meth use has revealed a number of potential hazards related to its use, including significant neurological effects.
Effects on the Central Nervous System
The central nervous system (CNS) includes the brain and spinal cord, along with a vast nexus of nerve cells throughout the entire body. It works as the major relay system for the body and is involved in nearly every bodily function. Research that has examined the effects of meth focus primarily on the effects that occur in the brain and spinal cord.
There is an extensive body of research that has examined the effects of meth use. Information culled from research articles in peer-reviewed journals suggests that there are many damaging effects associated with chronic use of meth, including the following:
Increased Destruction of Neurons
Meth use has been linked to a decrease in the number of neurons in the CNS. The ability of the CNS to recreate these neurons is limited, and in many cases, the destruction of neurons is irreversible. Evidence has shown that chronic use of meth can lead to brain damage due to neuronal death in many areas, including the following:
- Parietal cortex
- Frontal and prefrontal cortex
- Basal ganglia
- Reward center
- Limbic system
Other cells in the CNS, referred to as glial cells, have a number of responsibilities, including fighting infection and developing myelin (white matter that neurons used to communicate). Meth use has also been linked to increased damage and destruction of these cells in several areas of the brain, especially in the prefrontal cortex where vital functions, such as attention, abstract thinking, planning, and judgment occur.
Decreased White Matter
As some glial cells become damaged and the ability to generate myelin is affected in the brain and spinal cord, the volume of white matter in the CNS diminishes. White matter (myelin) helps in efficient signaling between neurons in the central nervous system, and as this matter is reduced, neurons become less efficient in transmitting their signals, resulting in several functional deficits.
A Reduction in Dopamine and Serotonin Transporters
Dopamine and serotonin transporters are specific cells in the CNS that reuptake dopamine and serotonin released from the neurons so these neurotransmitters can be repackaged for reuse. This action contributes to the psychoactive effects of meth, and also leads to dopamine and serotonin depletion because the neurons have less dopamine to reuse later. This can lead to extreme mood effects, such as extreme euphoria followed by periods of depression, apathy, and hopelessness.
Increased Glutamate Calcium
Increases in the neurotransmitter glutamate and calcium are associated with toxic effects in the brain resulting from neurons being excessively excited and continually firing to the point of damaging the system. If not tempered, this can lead to significant damage throughout the CNS.
Neurotoxic Effects Damage Neuron Dendrites
Many of these neurotoxic effects lead to extensive damage in the dendrites of neurons. Dendrites are the portions of the neurons that receive chemical signals from other neurons. This damage prevents the neurons from communicating efficiently and as a result, can impair cognitive and motor functions.
Damage to the Brain’s Circulatory System
Meth use also affects the veins, arteries, and capillaries in the CNS. Problems associated with increased blood pressure and weakening of veins and arteries can leave them susceptible to blood clots and scarring. This further results in an increased likelihood of having a stroke – both ischemic and hemorrhagic types.
Increased Risk of Traumatic Brain Injury
This increase in risk, although noteworthy, is not directly due to the effects of meth on the brain. Rather, people who abuse drugs like meth are statistically much more likely to have accidents or become involved in assaults that result in traumatic brain injuries. Moreover, experiencing a traumatic brain injury in addition to having a long-standing history of meth abuse can result in any number of potentially severe neurological issues.
Long-Term Cognitive Effects Linked to Meth Use
The cognitive and emotional effects that can occur as a result of long-term meth use continues to expand based on research, which indicates that the following cognitive areas are significantly affected by chronic meth abuse:
“Attention” is a broad term that encompasses many brain functions, and various aspects of both attention and concentration can be adversely affected by chronic meth use. This is the result of damage that occurs to neurons in the brain’s frontal and prefrontal cortex. Chronic issues with the ability to focus, switch focus, and concentrate for prolonged periods of time often persist even after extended abstinence.
Problem-Solving and Judgement
Judgment and problem-solving are general terms used to describe many different complex cognitive functions. The damage that results from meth abuse affects a person’s ability to suppress impulses, and this may reduce his or her ability to exert sound judgment and solve problems. The severity of this dysfunction varies between individuals, with some becoming rather impulsive and needing considerable assistance in controlling their behavior, whereas others may have more mild deficits.
Research has shown that the ability to encode and recall information is significantly decreased in both animals and humans following chronic meth abuse.
In an article published in the scientific journal Synapse, researchers at the University of Florida discovered that crystal meth use left users with long-term memory loss. These results only followed animal subjects for three weeks after they stopped consuming meth, so no one knows for sure exactly how long the memory impairments will persist. The impairments may be irreversible, or they may slowly improve over time.
Problems with Movement
The damage that occurs the neurons in white matter tracts in the brain is also linked to changes in motor functions, including reaction time, coordination in complex skills, and basic functions such as walking.
Related to problems with impulse control is a person’s ability to regulate and control emotional states. People who have chronically abused meth may exhibit any number of emotional issues, such as mood swings, chronic depression and apathy, a loss of motivation, aggressiveness and hostility, irritability, and self-harming and suicidal behaviors. These effects reflect both the reduction of neurotransmitters and the structural damage that occurs as a result of chronic meth use.
Treatment for Meth Abuse and Addiction
Meth addiction is a life-altering and potentially devastating condition that wreaks havoc on the lives of those who suffer as well as everyone around them. Fortunately, however, meth addiction is very treatable when approached comprehensively and addressed using evidence-based services such as psychotherapy, counseling, and group support.
Recovery in Tune employs a staff of highly-skilled addiction professionals dedicated to providing all clients with the resources and support they need to prevent relapse, achieve a full recovery, and experience long-lasting sobriety and wellness.
If you or a loved one are struggling with an addiction to meth, contact us today and find out how we can help!
Related: Cocaine vs. Meth: Effects of Abuse and Addiction