Methamphetamine (d-methamphetamine, crystal meth, or meth) is a man-made central nervous system stimulant. The substance often appears as bluish-tinted or white rocks or pieces of glass. It is most commonly smoked or snorted, and it is manufactured in private home laboratories using pseudoephedrine or ephedrine along with other substances that can be purchased at drugstores or hardware stores.
The mechanism of action of the drug is similar to other stimulants, in that its consumption results in massive releases of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine (along with other neurotransmitters) that lead to a number of extremely powerful euphoric effects, increases in energy, feelings of invulnerability, and other psychoactive effects. Because the substance is often made with a number of other substances that are potentially toxic, such as antifreeze, battery acid, or drain cleaner, it is both dangerous to use and highly combustible, making it dangerous to manufacture. Research regarding the short-term and long-term effects of methamphetamine use indicates that there are a number of significant potential dangers associated with its use, including significant neurological effects.
Effects on the Central Nervous System
The central nervous system (CNS) is composed of the brain and spinal cord. It serves as the major relay station for the body and is involved in the actions, regulation, and maintenance of nearly every bodily function. Research looking at the effects of methamphetamine focus primarily on the effects that occur in the brain; however, some of these effects can also be expected to generalize to neurons located in the spinal cord. The nerves located in the CNS are referred to as neurons, whereas the nerves outside the CNS are simply referred to as nerves.
There is a vast body of research investigating the effects of meth use and abuse. Information taken from research articles in the journals Alcoholism and Drug Addiction, Biological Psychiatry, General Physiology and Biophysiology, and PloS One indicates that there are a number of damaging effects associated with chronic use of methamphetamine. These include:
- Increased neuronal death: The use of methamphetamine is associated with decreases in the number of neurons in the CNS. The ability of the CNS to regenerate these neurons is limited, and in many cases, the loss of neurons cannot be recovered. The body of evidence indicates that chronic use of methamphetamine can result in diffuse brain damage that occurs via neuronal death. Neuronal death occurs in a number of areas of the brain as a result of meth abuse that include but are not limited to:
- The hippocampus: a crucial structure for the ability to remember and learn new information
- The striatum: a structure in the subcortical areas of the brain that is crucial in movement and certain aspects of directed attention
- The parietal cortex: a structure that is involved in being able to visualize objects in space and in the memory of nonverbal material
- The frontal and prefrontal cortex: areas of the brain that are crucial in human cognition, particularly in reasoning, complex attention, problem-solving, and the inhibition of behaviors that might be damaging
- A number of subcortical structures: including the basal ganglia, the reward center, the limbic system, and others
- The cerebellum: controls various aspects of movement and is involved in a number of cognitive functions
Some of the above effects may resolve, and there may be some improvement over time. For example, research indicates that damage to the dopamine transporter system may repair over time with significant abstinence. However, the loss of neurons in the CNS cannot be fully recovered. The CNS may recover some partial functions that are significantly lost due to a mechanism known as neural plasticity (the ability of the neurons and other structures in the brain to alter and extend their functions due to extreme injuries, as significant environmental stimulation forces the remaining neurons in the brain to assume other functions). However, this function is limited, and there is quite a bit of individual variability that occurs in the recovery process. Individuals who have chronically abused methamphetamine for significant periods of time may suffer a number of permanent neurological and cognitive effects.
Long-Term Cognitive Effects Associated with Methamphetamine Use
The list of cognitive and emotional effects that occur as a result of chronic abuse of meth continues to expand based on research. In general, the research studies cited above, NIDA, and the DEA, as well as information taken from The Everything Guide to the Human Brain, indicate that the following cognitive areas are affected significantly as a result of chronic methamphetamine abuse:
Individuals who enter a formal substance use disorder treatment program and are successful in maintaining abstinence often recover some level of functioning; however, in many cases, significant residual effects remain. Research indicates that there is quite a bit of variability in recovery that is often related to a number of personal variables as well as the length and seriousness of an individual’s use of methamphetamine.
Individuals who have pre-existing mental health conditions and have abused methamphetamine for lengthy periods of time, resulting in prolonged binges and a lack of attention to self-care, will obviously accrue more damage to the brain and central nervous system compared to individuals who use the drug for shorter or less intense periods or those who have fewer psychiatric issues. It is clear from the research that methamphetamine is a significant drug of abuse that has the potential to produce lasting effects in anyone who abuses it.
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