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Meth and the Brain

by Stacey Young

It's long been said that drug use harms your brain, but researchers using scans of the brain are now learning just exactly how bad that damage really is. This ScienCentral News video has more.

Addiction Blues

The poetry in Lee L.'s voice as he describes his great love is hypnotic.

"I loved Crystal," he gushes. Lee's not speaking of a person, but methamphetamine, known by its street name, Crystal Meth. "It gave me a sense of power. It made me feel hungry. It made me feel sexual. It made me feel virile. It was like all of the switches in my body and in my brain felt like they finally got turned on."

Lee—a 42-year-old composer who asked that his last name not be used in keeping with his involvement in the twelve-step program, New York Crystal Meth Anonymous—hunted down the drug as the days dragged between runs, even though he knew it was doing considerable bodily damage. "The physical body collapses a little every time, certainly in my case, every time that I used," he recalls. "The reward that it got was it hit upon a pleasure center in the brain."

For the first time, scientists have seen exactly which brain areas in the recovering methamphetamine addict change in the immediate days after they begin recovery. Edythe London, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, along with her colleagues, used PET scans—or positron emission tomography—to image how glucose is processed in the brains of 17 methamphetamine abusers who had stopped using the drug nearly a week before they participated in her study. She then compared those brain images with the brain images of 18 non-abusers, who completed the same attention task as their brains were measured.

"When people take crystal meth and become dependent on the drug, there is a real change in how the brain works," she says. "Very specifically, those circuits in the brain that are primarily in the pre-frontal cortex are down-regulated." The pre-frontal cortex is responsible for controlling behavior, but it also regulates an area in the lower brain—the amygdala—responsible for emotion. "The methamphetamine abuser, at least in early abstinence, has a pre-frontal cortex that's not doing its job of controlling the amygdala. So when the methamphetamine user is reminded of drug taking by being in a place where he or she took the drug before…or even the feeling of money in the pocket that could be used to take the drug, this turns on the amygdala and other areas of the brain that are important for craving."

Coupled with cranked-up craving is another danger, a huge complaint methamphetamine abusers have as they try to navigate the waters of abstinence: A depression so crushing the alternative—more methamphetamine—seems preferable. "There's an incredible manic high that's followed by this depression that feels like it's ripping me apart," Lee L. says.

This jumbled biochemical process helps explain in part why chronic crystal users have such a difficult time quitting, London says: "This really can color how they feel and make them want to take the drug again."

Worldwide, crystal meth use has reached epidemic proportions, London says. "Really, meth is the largest abused drug after marijuana and the effects of meth are very long-lasting and very remarkable in terms of brain function. Kids that use meth have no idea what they're getting into."

National Institutes of Health figures show that, for now, crystal meth use amongst teens stabilized in 2003 at 6.2 percent of high school seniors who reported use of methamphetamine, unchanged from 6.9 percent in 2001. All told, 12.4 million Americans age 12 and older—or 5.3 percent of the population—had tried methamphetamine at least once by 2002, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported on the same NIH website.

With London's contribution, treating addicts may soon change. They'll possibly get anti-depressants during the initial phases of treatment to get them over the depression hump. The new information "is absolutely critical," London says, if doctors want to "tailor make therapies for this brain as it changes and approaches recovery."

Lee L. won't say that he'll never do the drug again. Instead, he's taking it one day at a time, and says that since he's been off crystal meth, he's never experienced so much peace.

This research appeared in the February, 2004 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, and was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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