Methamphetamine is a powerful central nervous stimulant and a common depressant. It’s known to be one of the most volatile recreational drugs available, causing chemical dependence and addiction after just a few successive uses. Meth can also cause some damage to your brain and nervous system, which is referred to as neurotoxicity. Because meth can be neurotoxic, and encourages binge use by its nature, it can be an extremely dangerous drug. People who use meth for a long time can experience long-lasting physical and psychological problems that take time to recover from.
Learn more about meth’s neurotoxicity and how you can recover from meth addiction.
What Is Neurotoxicity?
Neurotoxicity refers to damage to your brain or central nervous system. It’s often used to refer to the ability of a chemical substance to cause damage to your brain. Neurotoxicity is a dangerous potential consequence of using certain drugs and medications. When a drug is being studied for use as a medication, it won’t make it to approved human use if it has high neurotoxicity.
Some common chemicals that aren’t meant for human consumption can be neurotoxic when inhaled or consumed. Some drugs can be damaging to the brain in high doses, but normal use wouldn’t cause dangerous levels of neurotoxicity. However, illicit recreational use can increase your chances of experiencing some neurotoxic effects of some drugs.
Neurotoxicity may be more dangerous than other common effects of a drug. Damage to your brain and nervous system can cause long-lasting effects that take months to years to recover from. In some cases, it can last for the rest of your life. In many cases, you may be able to recover from some of the neurotoxic effects of methamphetamine, but only if you’re able to escape from a cycle of active meth addiction.
However, meth is notoriously difficult to stop using once you’ve become addicted. One of its neurotoxic effects makes it difficult for you to achieve a feeling of pleasure or reward, which can cause severe depression in people that try to quit. However, it is possible to treat meth addiction with help from a doctor and addiction treatment services.
How Does Meth Work in the Brain?
Meth is a central nervous system stimulant, and it works by increasing activity in your brain and nervous system. Stimulants also include drugs like cocaine, caffeine, and nicotine. Methamphetamine is closely related to a class of drugs called amphetamines that are used to treat ADHD and includes drug brands like Adderall. Methamphetamine is also a prescription drug in the United States, though it’s rarely used.
Meth primarily works to increase the release of a neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine is an important chemical messenger that’s tied to reward and motivation. It’s one of your brain’s feel-good chemicals that can influence your mood with positive feelings. When dopamine is released you may feel excited, happy, and motivated to accomplish tasks.
Meth works to increase the amount of dopamine in your system in two ways. It can enter your nerve cells and trigger the release of more dopamine than normal. Once the dopamine is released it binds to dopamine receptors and activates them, which is what leads to the chemical’s effects on your nervous system.
Under normal circumstances, excessive dopamine would be removed from your system by something called dopamine transporter and through a process called reuptake. However, meth blocks the reuptake process. So meth is able to increase dopamine release and prevents it from being removed.
How Neurotoxic Is Meth?
One of the ways in which meth harms the brain is by damaging dopamine and serotonin receptors. Since meth causes a significant release and build-up of dopamine in the brain, the chemicals can flood their receptors, damaging them in the process. Damaged receptors can cause them to lose functionality. Since dopamine receptors are needed to help you feel pleasure and reward, damaging them may make it harder for you to feel these mood-lifting effects. This can deepen meth dependence and addiction, making it so that it’s difficult to experience rewarding or pleasurable feelings from normal healthy activities without using meat.
People who stop using the drug may experience a symptom called anhedonia, which can be caused by damaged dopamine receptors. Anhedonia is the inability to feel pleasure, and it can cause depression, a lack of motivation, and lethargy. Meth withdrawal can also cause depression, thoughts of suicide, and suicidal actions if it’s not addressed. For most people, anhedonia that’s caused by meth is temporary, but it can take a long time to recover from the damage to your dopamine receptors.
Meth has been shown to cause changes in the brain that can lead to some neurological impairment. The effects on your dopamine system may have effects beyond your ability to feel pleasure. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), microimaging studies have found changes in the dopamine system that can cause reduced motor speed and impaired verbal learning. Chronic meth use can also cause structural and functional changes that can impair memory and have negative effects on emotions.
Research in primates also showed that meth can affect the brain by impairing decision-making, especially when it comes to suppressing counterproductive, habitual behaviors. This could worsen the disease of addiction and explain why meth addiction is so difficult to overcome.
Why Is Meth So Dangerous?
While the acute effects of meth can last for hours, the initial rush of euphoric feelings lasts for only a few minutes. After the rush is over you may feel confident, aggressive, argumentative, anxious, paranoid, and delusional for as long as 16 hours. To continue the positive feelings of meth use, people often take several doses in a row, which is called a binge. Binges can last for days and may include several nights without sleep. There are several serious side effects to a meth binge, including something called stimulant psychosis, which involves temporary psychotic symptoms like delusions and hallucinations. However, binging can also increase your risk of other serious adverse effects like overdose and neurotoxicity.
Meth is highly addictive and encourages binging by its nature. People who use the drug recreationally for a long time are likely to experience damage to their brain or central nervous system. Meth addiction can have some other effects on your health that may worsen brain and nervous system damage. Meth suppresses appetite, and addiction, in general, can cause you to prioritize seeking and using drugs over nutrition. People who have substance use disorders that involve meth are often malnourished. Malnutrition can also have brain-damaging effects.
Preventing and Treating Meth Neurotoxicity
The most obvious way to prevent brain damage and the neurotoxic effects of meth is to avoid the drug altogether. Meth is a powerful stimulant, and experimenting with meth use can quickly lead to a substance use disorder. It’s also important to avoid a meth binge. When using meth, it may be difficult to resist the urge to take several doses in a row. However, doing so increases your risk of brain-damaging effects.
If you do develop a chemical dependence or addiction to meth, it’s important to seek treatment as soon as possible. Meth may be more likely to cause brain and nervous system damage after a period of chronic use. Addressing a methamphetamine addiction quickly after it develops may help prevent brain damage.
If you’ve developed a substance use disorder that involves meth, treatment can help you address addiction and some of the consequences of meth use. Addiction treatment is a multidisciplinary process that addresses the physical, psychological, and social issues that may come with drug addiction. When you enter a treatment program, you’ll start by going through a process of medical and psychological assessment. If you’ve experienced neurological issues like memory problems, numbness, poor coordination, slow movements, slower reaction times, or other cognitive issues, you can ask your doctor about potential treatment options.
Of course, quitting meth use is important in taking the first steps to avoid and reverse the damage the drug can cause in your brain and body. Addiction can be treated with detox programs, behavioral therapies, individual and group therapy, and by addressing underlying issues like mental health.