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What Does Meth Do To Your Brain?

Crystal meth is a powerful psychostimulant drug. It is one of the most potent stimulants and can produce extreme euphoria, heightened alertness, increased confidence, powerful sexual urges, and increased energy.

In this article

    How Meth Affects The Brain

    Meth produces potent neurological effects. Over time it can physically alter the way the brain is wired and operates. Meth works through amplifying certain neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. There is a surge of all three of these neurotransmitters, but dopamine function is amplified much stronger than the others. Amphetamines produce their effects by indirect means. Meth acts by directly stimulating neurotransmitter release. It will also inhibit reuptake. This promotes the release of stored dopamine and causes reverse transport in the receptors themselves.

    Through chronic use, crystal meth produces long-term effects on brain structure and function. Certain areas of the brain, such as the striatum and the ventral tegmental area, are affected. This can have far-reaching consequences for higher-level reasoning. As parts of the limbic system, they are sometimes referred to as the “reward center” of the brain. The limbic system handles feelings of reward, positive reinforcement, motivation, and fine motor control. Meth-induced changes to the limbic system accelerate addictive behavior, reduce empathy for others, and increase risk-taking behavior.

    Sensory Effects

    The sensory effects of meth are produced by a surge in both dopamine and norepinephrine. Euphoria and rushes of pleasure felt from meth use are due to increased dopamine. This feeling of pleasure and excitement is very intense and sudden. The most pronounced sensory effects are due to norepinephrine. This is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone when present in the blood. In the brain, norepinephrine is responsible for attention, focus, confidence, aggression, and sexual arousal.

    Sensory effects are dangerous because tolerance to euphoria increases much more rapidly than tolerance to respiratory depression. It is not uncommon for someone to use so much meth that they stop breathing.

    Emotional Effects

    Meth use causes very serious effects on a person’s emotional state. In the long term, users will experience a decrease in the ability to feel empathy or to sympathize with other people. In the short term, this can manifest as a disregard for the feelings of others while under the influence. The depression felt when not using meth will only increase the longer it is used. Dopamine downregulation deepens with further use. This can worsen any pre-existing mental health issues and may take many years of abstinence for someone to fully recover.

    Likewise, someone who uses meth for long periods may become more prone to wild mood swings. Insomnia is a common symptom of regular meth use, and this can worsen someone’s state of mind. Increased paranoia and delusional thoughts and feelings may further a person’s detachment from reality.

    Behavioral Effects

    Meth use is often characterized by:

    • Excessive Energy
    • Talkativeness
    • Insomnia
    • Paranoia
    • Fidgeting or Tics (pulling hair or picking of the face and arms)

    Excessive use may also result in psychotic-like states that resemble acute schizophrenic episodes. Crystal meth is one of the few drugs that have a distinct lifestyle. Insomnia is very common among people who use meth, causing them to stay awake for many days at a time. Because of this, people who use meth tend to spend more time with other people who are also using it.

    In general, some behaviors which may emerge during meth use include:

    • Withdrawal from Family and Social Life
    • Increased Absences from Work
    • Erratic or Unusual Behavior
    • Failure to Keep Plans
    • Frequent Appeals to Borrow Money
    • Decreased Emphasis on Personal Hygiene
    How Meth Affects the Brain

    Immediate Neurological Effects of Meth Use

    Once meth has been used, it will enter the brain and cause an intense and long-lasting high. Some of the most general neurological effects include a speeding up of thought processes, an increase in confidence and awareness, and intense euphoria. This is mediated through the release of three different neurotransmitters:

    • Dopamine. This neurotransmitter is a critical part of normal brain function. It can produce feelings of reward and motivation. The dopamine surge produced when someone uses meth creates a powerful euphoric rush. Not only does it increase dopamine levels, but it also prevents reuptake. Meth releases dopamine stored inside neurons, causing levels to spike to a drastic degree.
    • Norepinephrine. This is both a neurotransmitter in the brain and a hormone in the blood. It is a major component of our “fight-or-flight” response. In the brain, it increases alertness, confidence, aggression, and speeds up reaction time. In the body, it acts as a stress hormone and promotes the release of glucose and adrenaline. It also increases heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow to muscles. Normally, this chemical is released in bulk during fight-or-flight situations since it can raise physical performance for brief periods, increasing survival chances.
    • Serotonin. While serotonin is used in many different areas of the body, in the brain it is a mood enhancer and regulator. It helps promote feelings of wellbeing and happiness at normal levels. The flood produced by meth use is overwhelming.

    These neurotransmitters can, and often do, return to normal levels and function with continued abstinence. That being said, it can be very uncomfortable while the brain recovers. It is often recommended to seek help through this difficult period. Entering a detox center in Atlanta can provide medications and medical monitoring to reduce the discomfort and risk of complications.

    Long-Term Neurological Effects of Meth Use

    The long-term risks of meth use are concerning as there are currently no effective treatments. Using crystal meth can alter the structure of the brain. It is currently unknown if this damage can heal. A few of the long term effects include:

    • Amphetamine Psychosis. A common result from chronic crystal meth use. The symptoms can be indistinguishable from acute paranoid schizophrenia. Individuals may experience visual/auditory/tactile hallucinations, paranoid delusions, disorganized thoughts, erratic behavior, and violent outbursts.
    • Dementia-Like Symptoms. This can often take the form of slowed or clouded thinking involving processes like comprehension, reaction time, memory, and an increased susceptibility to Parkinsonism. The exact cause is unclear but may involve damage to dopamine terminals in the brain. This particular type of brain damage improves with prolonged abstinence. A return to brain function before meth use is unlikely, though. The effects meth has on the brain appear to resemble a roughly 4x acceleration of age-related neural degradation.
    • Increased Anti-Social Behavior. This is shown in chronic meth users (rodents and humans) through MRI scans. The MRI shows enlarged striatal volumes. PET scans show decreased brain glucose metabolism. Lowered brain glucose metabolism is an indicator of decreased or abnormal neurological function. The decrease in metabolism correlates with the amount of meth used. Higher doses of meth produced a greater decrease in brain glucose metabolism. The presence of increased striatal volumes is closely associated with psychopathy and extreme antisocial behavior. On average, diagnosed psychopaths have 9.6% increased striatal volumes when compared to people who do not exhibit psychopathic tendencies.
    • Increased Susceptibility to Neurodegenerative Diseases. Meth use can increase the risk of neurological diseases through several mechanisms, including neuroinflammation, excitotoxicity, and increased permeability of the blood-brain barrier. This also increases the risk for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, various dementias, and accelerates the progression of HIV-associated dementia and NeuroAIDS.

    While everyone has a unique experience with crystal meth addiction, there is always hope for a full recovery. Entering an Atlanta inpatient rehab center can often provide a very solid foundation for long-term recovery.

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