Your Brain on Meth

Your Brain on Meth: Effects on the Brain and Nervous System

Methamphetamine, or meth, is a potent stimulant drug that has powerful effects on the central nervous system. Like other stimulant drugs, meth speeds up the chemical processes in the brain.

Though it can have many adverse effects the body, one of the biggest risks of meth is long-term brain damage – some of which isn’t reversible with abstinence.[1]

What Happens to Your Brain on Methamphetamine?

The brain relies on neurotransmitters to send messages to and from cells in the brain and body, including the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, meth works like other stimulants and causes a massive release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and other neurotransmitters, which creates the powerful euphoric effects, energy surge, and feelings of invincibility.[2]

In normal brain functioning, dopamine is released to various parts of the body and brain, then stored for later use. With meth users, however, an excess of dopamine is released but not recycled or stored. The brain becomes overstimulated, and when the euphoria wears off, the dopamine returns to normal – causing a crash. This can be extremely unpleasant, leading people to take more meth to get that feeling back.

Does Meth Cause Brain Damage?

Both short-term and long-term use of methamphetamine can do extensive damage to the body and brain, some of which is irreversible. Methamphetamine brain damage can include impairment of the dopamine and serotonin neurons that affect how you feel, act, and think, as well as creating mental health symptoms like depression and paranoia.[3]

Other methamphetamine effects on the brain can include:

  • Reduced mental resilience
  • Impaired decision-making
  • Impaired verbal learning
  • Reduced motor function
  • Structural changes that impact emotion and memory
  • Psychosis

Meth use affects cells in the brain called microglia, which are responsible for clearing damaged brain cells and fighting infection. Meth increases the activity of microglia, causing them to destroy healthy brain cells.

What Part of the Brain Does Methamphetamine Affect?

The use of methamphetamine is associated with decreases in the number of neurons in the central nervous system. Though some can be regenerated, it’s limited, so some neurons are lost forever, leading to neuronal death.[4]

Meth abuse can cause neuronal death in different areas of the brain, including:

  • The hippocampus, a crucial structure for processing new information and forming memories
  • The striatum, a structure in the subcortical areas of the brain that affects movement and directed attention
  • The parietal cortex, a structure that’s involved in visualized objects in space and remembering nonverbal material
  • The frontal and prefrontal cortex, the areas of the brain that are crucial in human cognition, including reasoning, attention, problem-solving, and behavioral inhibition
  • The number of subcortical structures, including the basal ganglia, the reward center, the limbic system, and more
  • The cerebellum, which controls various aspects of movement and cognitive function

Long-Term Effects of Methamphetamine on the Brain

  • Decreased Gliogenesis and White Matter

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    Glial cells in the central nervous system are responsible for fighting infection, signaling, and developing myelin – the white matter that’s used to facilitate communication between nerve cells. Methamphetamine use kills brain cells in several areas, including the prefrontal cortex that’s responsible for attention, abstract thought, judgment, and planning.[5] Meth also decreases the production of glial progenitor cells that develop into glial cells.

    Meth use damages the glial cells and the ability to produce myelin, decreasing the brain’s white matter. This is essential for signaling between neurons in the central nervous system. As a result, neurons become less efficient in transmitting signals, leading to functional deficits.

  • Decreased Dopamine and Serotonin Transporters

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    Dopamine and serotonin transporters are specialized cells in the central nervous system that remove the neurotransmitters that have been released from neurons and bring them back to the cells for reuse. This is part of the psychoactive effects of meth, but it can deplete dopamine and serotonin because they can’t be recycled and reused.[6] The euphoria that comes from meth is then followed by feelings of depression and hopelessness.

  • Neurotoxic Effects

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    The neurotoxic effects of meth can damage the dendrites of the neurons, which are receiving portions of the neurons that receive chemical signals from other neurons.[7] The neurons can no longer communicate effectively, leading to deficits in cognition and motor function.

  • Damage to the Brain’s Circulatory System

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    Methamphetamine affects the arteries, veins, and capillaries in the central nervous system. Meth use causes an extreme increase in blood pressure and weakens the veins and arteries, leading to scarring, clots, and stroke risk. When strokes occur in the central nervous system, they’re considered ischemic or hemorrhagic ischemic strokes that cut off blood supply to certain areas of the brain. With that, these areas of the brain are deprived of oxygen over time.[8]

    Hemorrhagic strokes are acute and occur when the artery or vein bursts, reducing the blood flow to the tissues of the brain. Though hemorrhagic strokes are generally easier to recover from, both types of strokes can be damaging.

Are the Effects of Methamphetamine on the Brain Reversible?

Some of the brain damage caused by meth is reversible. Studies show that people who used meth chronically and quit restore normal brain cell activity in a year or more. Some changes can be permanent, however, especially if they’re the result of meth side effects like a stroke.

Meth Addiction Treatment

The effects of meth on the brain are among the biggest risks of using meth, but they’re also a big reason that methamphetamine addiction can be so difficult to overcome.

If you or a loved one is struggling with meth addiction, addiction treatment programs can be effective for addressing methamphetamine use disorder. The treatment options are tailored to your needs, but may include:

Detox can help you manage meth withdrawal symptoms
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Detox

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Detox can help you manage meth withdrawal symptoms

Meth withdrawal isn’t usually life threatening like opioid detox, but it can be extremely unpleasant. Detox can help you manage your withdrawal symptoms while the drug clears your system, ensuring you’re as comfortable and safe as possible.

Meth Inpatient or Residential Treatment
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Inpatient or Residential Treatment

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Meth Inpatient or Residential Treatment

Inpatient treatment includes a stay in a hospital or residential setting with intensive care, including medical supervision. Other treatments, such as individual counseling and behavioral therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may also take place.

Meth Outpatient Treatment
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Outpatient Treatment

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Meth Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment offers similar treatment options as inpatient, but they take place during the day. You have the flexibility to balance your day-to-day responsibilities by attending treatment sessions and returning home to manage other obligations.

Meth treatment Aftercare
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Aftercare

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Meth treatment Aftercare

Aftercare takes place after inpatient or outpatient treatment to transition to day-to-day life and develop support systems to maintain abstinence and prevent relapse.

Frequently Asked Questions

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What Does Methamphetamine Do to the Brain?

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Meth has both immediate and long-term effects on the brain. Upon use, meth causes an extremely high release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters, leading to euphoria and a subsequent “crash” with feelings of paranoia and depression. In the long-term, meth use can cause structural and functional changes in the brain – some of which are permanent – that affect decision-making, mood stability, learning, and motor function.

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How Does Methamphetamine Affect the Nervous System?

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Meth is a powerful central nervous system stimulant that elevates mood, alertness, and concentration for a short period. With chronic abuse, meth can cause brain damage, including severe damage to the dopamine and serotonin neurons that affect mood, behavior, and thought processes.

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Does Methamphetamine Permanently Damage Brain Cells?

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Meth causes widespread brain damage, only some of which can be reversed. It begins at the cellular level and affects glial cells and microglial cells. The brain has a limited ability to regenerate cells, which is why some effects may be reversible with occasional meth use. The risk of irreversible damage increases with chronic use, however.

Sources
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[01]

Miller, D. R., Bu, A.-M., Gopinath, A., Martinez, L. R., & Khoshbouei, H. (2021, January 1). Methamphetamine dysregulation of the central nervous system and peripheral immunity. Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. Retrieved from https://jpet.aspetjournals.org/content/early/2021/09/17/jpet.121.000767 on 2023, June 24.

[02]

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023, March 3). Methamphetamine drug facts. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/methamphetamine on 2023, June 24.

[03]

Moeller, S., Huttner, H. B., Struffert, T., Muller, H.H. (2016, March 4). Irreversible brain damage caused by methamphetamine: Persisting structural brain lesions. Alcoholism and Drug Addiction. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S086743611600002X on 2023, June 24.

[04]

Kim, B., Yun, J., & Park, B. (2020, September 1). Methamphetamine-induced neuronal damage: Neurotoxicity and neuroinflammation. Biomolecules & therapeutics. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7457172/ on 2023, June 24.

[05]

Kim, A., & Mandyam, C. D. (2014, November). Methamphetamine affects cell proliferation in the medial prefrontal cortex: A new niche for toxicity. Pharmacology, biochemistry, and behavior. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4253078/ on 2023, June 24.

[06]

Volkow, N. D., Chang, L., Wang, G.-J., Fowler, J. S., Franceschi, D., Sedler, M., Gatley, S. J., Miller, E., Hitzemann, R., Ding, Y.-S., & Logan, J. (2001, December 1). Loss of dopamine transporters in methamphetamine abusers recovers with protracted abstinence. Journal of Neuroscience. Retrieved from https://www.jneurosci.org/content/21/23/9414 on 2023, June 24.

[07]

Methamphetamine-induced structural plasticity in the dorsal striatum. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/193/2014/11/jedynak_07.pdf on 2023, June 24.

[08]

Zhu, Z., Vanderschelden, B., Lee, S. J., Blackwill, H., Shafie, M., Soun, J. E., Chow, D., Chang, P., Stradling, D., Qian, T., & Yu, W. (2023, May 25). Methamphetamine use increases the risk of cerebral small vessel disease in young patients with acute ischemic stroke. Scientific reports. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10212921/ on 2023, June 24.

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