Meth abuse recently received much media attention when past America’s Next Top Model contestant Jael Strauss appeared on Dr.Phil for an intervention on her addiction. There’s also the TV-drama “Breaking Bad” that storylines a teacher who runs a meth lab at home to make enough money to support his family before he dies of lung cancer. Cinematic drama aside, Methamphetamine addiction is serious business and the physical deteriation from it is alarming.
Your Brain on Drugs: What is Meth?
Meth is a crystalline, white, odorless powder that dissolves easily in water. Methamphetamine can be eaten, snorted, smoked or injected. Methamphetamine, also known as Chalk, Crank, Croak, Crypto, Crystal, Fire, Glass, Meth, Tweek, or White Cross, is a central nervous system stimulant. It increases energy, awareness, and alertness. In high doses, it causes a feeling of euphoria. Meth can be prescribed by a doctor, but this is rare, as its medical uses are limited. Most “street meth” is chemically concocted in small, illegal laboratories.
Your Brain on Drugs: How does meth affect the brain?
Meth use can definitely cause brain damage. Scans of the brains of meth users show that meth causes considerable inflammation and brain damage similar to dementia.
Meth affects the brain primarily because of its effect on dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical in your brain, also known as a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters deliver messages between neurons in the brain. It is how they communicate.
Dopamine is known as the “pleasure” neurotransmitter, because the amount of dopamine in your brain is increased in response to pleasurable events like sex or good food. Meth acts on dopamine receptors in the brain. It stimulates the receptor to release a rush of dopamine which stimulates brain cells, increasing mood and energy. Dopamine is closely related to the reward centers in the brain, which is why meth use has such a high incidence of dependence and addiction. Meth has also been shown to have a neurotoxic effect on dopamine neurons over time, inducing Parkinson’s-like symptoms in long term users.
The effect on dopamine receptors can cause reduced motor skills and impaired verbal learning in long term users. Also, chronic meth use has also been associated with permanent changes in the parts of the brain that regulate emotion and memory, which may account for the cognitive impairment that is observed in long-term meth users.
Your Brain on Drugs: Crank Bugs
“Crank Bugs” are when a meth user hallucinates that they have insects crawling on them. It is common for a meth user to scratch and pick the skin trying to get rid of these imaginary crank bugs. As a result, the skin becomes pocked or scarred. “Crank bugs” are partially responsible for the rapid deterioration in physical appearance that is common among meth users. Chronic meth use can also cause paranoia, hallucinations, and repetitive behavior.
Your Brain on Drugs: Meth Addiction and Recovery
Because of meth’s strong effect on dopamine receptors, meth is highly addictive. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking behavior despite negative consequences. Addiction also causes permanent changes in the brain.
Meth addiction is one of the most difficult forms of addictions to treat. Most chronic drug abusers experience heavy withdrawal symptoms when meth drug abuse is abruptly stopped. Several drugs are used to treat withdrawal symptoms and cravings, but their success rate is low. Because of the neurotoxicity caused by meth on dopamine neurons, post-acute withdrawal (withdrawal lasting for weeks or months) is common.
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