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Biology 202
2004 Second Web Paper
On Serendip

The Effects of Methamphetamine on the Brain

Amy Gao

When the word "meth" is mentioned, what is the image that immediately flashes into your mind? Perhaps a picture of individuals huddled together, inhaling substances that give off repugnant odors in a dark alley somewhere? Or drug cartels that wage bloody warfare upon each other on the Mexican-American border over the control the supply of the drug? These stereotypical impressions may have been correct years ago, but methamphetamine, whose street names include speed, chalk, ice, crystal, crank, and glass has long moved beyond just being the dominant drug of choice in the San Diego, CA area.(1) The use of this drug has spread to rural and urban areas of the Midwest and the South. Thus, the problem of methamphetamine is no longer confined to a certain geographical area; it has become a nation-wide problem.(3)

Methamphetamine, a powerful synthetically produced stimulant of the central nervous system (CNS), is a substance that has similar effects on the human body not unlike cocaine. Under federal regulations, it is a schedule II drug, which means that it has a high potential for abuse with severe liability to cause dependence.(2) The drug, like many illicit substances, may be injected, ingested, snorted, or smoked. However, unlike cocaine, it has a longer, lasting affect on the human body. In animal models, methamphetamine have shown to cause the release of high levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that stimulates the brain cells, which in turn would enhance temperament and body moment. Consumption of this compound also has a neurotoxic effect on the brain cells that store dopamine and serotonin, another substance that is responsible for neurotransmission.

Even minute consumption of methamphetamine will induce wakefulness, increased physical activity, decreased appetite, increased respiration, hyperthermia, euphoria. Effects of methamphetamine on the CNS also include irritability, insomnia, confusion, paranoia, and aggressiveness. Since it is known that it is difficult for nerve cells to be regenerated after having been damaged, it is a clear indication that use of this drug—in small or large quantities—cause irreversible damages in the CNS. This observation was reported in a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which also found that individuals who have a long history of methamphetamine abuse have reduced levels in dopamine transporters, which are associated with slowed motor skills and weakened memories in the individuals.(4) Abusers who remained abstinent for at least nine months were found to have recovered from damage to their dopamine transporters, but their motor skills and memories were not found to have significantly recovered.

"Methamphetamine abuse is a grave problem that can lead to serious health conditions including brain damage, memory loss, psychotic-like behavior, heart damage, hepatitis, and HIV transmission," says Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).(5) In another study done by Drs. Ernst and Chang at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, CA., it was found that methamphetamine users had abnormal chemistry in all parts of their brains. According to Dr. Chang, "In one of the regions, the amount of damage was also related to the history of drug use-those abusers who had the greatest cumulative lifetime methamphetamine use had the strongest indications of cell damage."

There have been more than two decades of studies and researches focused on the effects of methamphetamine upon the body, especially the damages that the compound does to the brain. Even though the substance may bring about extreme pleasures, these "flashes" only last for a few minutes. It is well-known that users can become addicted very quickly, and the drugs are used with increasing frequency and in increasing doses.(6)

As with drug addiction of any kind—methamphetamine addiction included—may be successfully treated. The treatment usually includes counseling, psychotherapy, support groups, and family therapy. Medications prescribed to individuals assist in the suppression of the withdrawal syndrome, craving of the drug, and in blocking the effects of the drug upon the body. It has been found that the more treatment given, and the longer the period, the more successful the addict will stay abstinent from the source of addiction.(7)

The use of methamphetamine has been proven repeatedly to be associated with irreversible damages to the brain. Even though the neurotransmitters in the brain may recover once the individual has abstained from the drug, the damages have already been done and the effects cannot be reversed. With each consumption/inhalation of the substance, the individual sinks lower into a never ending spiral of drug abuse. A few moments of pleasure in exchange for permanent damages done to the organ that is the most important in the body—after all, brain is the only organ that can never be transplanted—is it really worth it?


1. National Institute on Drug Abuse

2. Street Drugs, an informational site about drug abuse

3. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

4. NIDA, NIDA Research on Withdrawl from Methamphetamine

5. National Institute of Health, NIH News

6. NIDA, NIDA information about methamphetamine

7. NIDA, Information about drug addiction treatment

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