When someone speaks about the most deadly drugs on the planet, methamphetamine should be on that list. While the use of the drug has been overshadowed by the opioid crisis currently facing the country, it’s easy to forget about the potency and hold on someone the substance can have. The problem is, without giving meth the same attention as opioids, we face a problem that can spiral completely out of control such as what we see currently with heroin.

The most recent survey about the scope of methamphetamine use released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) shows that approximately 1.2 million people reported using the drug in the past year. It’s important to note that while these statistics show a high number of users, there has been an over-abundance of meth circulating the street because of production in Mexico in superlabs.

Mexican cartels are driving a spike in meth use across the United States, and superlabs can produce tons of the drug that is generally cheaper and more potent than batches produced north of the border. Since the government’s crackdown in 2006 on supplies that manufacturers needed to cook the drug, it significantly cut the number of meth labs in the country.

While that can be seen as a positive, it doesn’t spearhead the root, which is if there is a demand, supply will work itself out. It left a gaping hole in the market that cartels filled to diversify their drug portfolio. While the above statistics paint a high number of users, it doesn’t take into account the superlabs that have infiltrated our country. The use of methamphetamine is skyrocketing, and it leaves one to wonder not if meth causes lasting brain damage, but how much?

Jarrett Hopewell was alone when he started to crash. The extreme euphoria was wearing off, and he could feel the depression creeping in; it was only a few hours after the first time he tried meth. Jarrett was at a party where people come to use drugs and engage in sexual acts, and the drug of choice is methamphetamine.

Jarrett explains his spontaneity and willingness to try the drug, and after he inhaled he felt a warm, comforting sensation where his problems melted away. As the high continued, he didn’t sleep, and he told himself that he would try it again in a month. The addiction was starting, and part of his brain was already craving it. Jarrett saw those men at the party yet later and admitted he couldn’t afford groceries, and opted to shoot up in his neck because his veins were all used. Fortunately, the story goes onto say that after he reached rock bottom, he never used meth again.

These stories are all too familiar, and Jarrett was fortunate to stop using the drug. Many cannot stop because of the extreme comedown that is associated with the use of the substance. Abrupt cessation of methamphetamine and causes suicidal thoughts, which is a reason why someone who wants to stop the drug must enter into treatment.

Meth withdrawals are among the most difficult to overcome, and success rates for meth users are often lower than other drugs. While we’ve discussed how low the drug can bring you, let’s talk about what kind of brain damage that can occur as a result of using it.

What is Methamphetamine?

Methamphetamine is a powerful, highly addictive stimulant that affects our central nervous system (CNS). It was developed in the early 20th century from its parent drug, amphetamine, and was used in nasal decongestants and inhalers. Methamphetamine causes increased activity and talkativeness, decreased appetite, and a pleasurable sense of well-being. The drug is much longer-lasting than amphetamine, and the characteristics give it a high potential for widespread abuse.

The drug is classified as a Schedule II stimulant by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which makes it legally available only through a non-refillable prescription. There are variations of the illegal substance in prescription drugs such as Adderall, and it treats disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. It is also used to induce weight loss, but it is a rare practice. The prescribed doses are much lower than what is abused.

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Meth Abuse?

Long-term meth use has been attributed to many adverse effects including addiction, which is a compulsive drug-seeking behavior accompanied by molecular changes in the brain. Tolerance to meth will lead to higher doses of the drug being needed for a high, and chronic meth users may develop a difficulty to experience pleasure without using the substance. It is one of the reasons quitting meth long-term is so difficult because the brain has problems generating dopamine on its own. Those who feel depressed from lack of meth will look for the drug for comfort.

Long-term meth abusers will also experience:

  • Significant anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Insomnia
  • Mood disturbances
  • Violent behavior
  • Paranoia
  • Visual and auditory hallucinations

These psychotic symptoms can last for months or years after someone has quit abusing the drug. These problems highlight significant changes in the brain caused by the abuse of methamphetamine.

Neuroimaging studies have shown a direct link of alterations in the activity of the dopamine system that are associated with reduced motor speed and impaired verbal learning. Other studies have demonstrated severe structural and functional changes in areas of the brain associated with emotion and memory, which may account for many of the emotional and cognitive changes observed in chronic meth users.

Meth abuse has also highlighted the adverse effects on non-neural brain cells called microglia, which are cells that support brain health by protecting the brain against infectious agents and removing damaged neurons. When these cells are too active, they can assault healthy neurons. A study that inspected brain imaging found more than double the levels of microglial cells in former meth abusers when compared to healthy brains with no history of drug abuse.

Fortunately, some of the effects have shown to be partially reversible. Abstinence from meth resulted in less excess microglial activation over time, and abusers who remained free of the drug for at least two years showed levels of microglial levels close to those who did not use drugs. Prolonged abstinence is the key, and the longer someone remains sober, the better chance they have at reversing the brain damage.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction to meth, they must consider treatment immediately before they cause lasting brain damage. Meth withdrawal is not necessarily deadly, but coming down from meth alone can lead to suicidal thoughts, which can be dangerous if someone attempts to follow through. Many of those who try to quit on their own will not succeed, and getting help is their best option. Fortunately, we can help even the most significant cases.

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