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Fried alive

SWISS CHEESE: The picture below is the brain of someone who had used meth for 15 years. The usually smooth exterior is perforated by holes where the brain no longer functions, caused by the drug's corrosive industrial acids and toxins.

"You are going to damage your brain, and it may be something you don't get back..."
~ Dr. Antonio E. Urbina [St. Vincent's Hospital, NY]

Smoking meth alters the brain's molecular structure and is far more addictive and harmful than snorting. The smoke is quickly absorbed through the lining of the lungs and into the bloodstream and delivery to the brain is instant, potentially triggering fatal kidney, lung and liver disorders that can lead to strokes, heart failure and death. Just one inhalation is enough to permanently rewire the brain's chemistry, while the caustic, acrid vapour emitted by meth smoke gradually crystallises the lungs of regular users.

The Brain Injury Association of Arizona has likened the symptoms exhibited by meth users - including memory impairment, cognitive impairment and an inability to do basic psychological assessments - to patients with traumatic brain injury. Various studies have shown that brain impairment is even worse in meth users who are also HIV+. [see The HIV Correlation]

In July 2004, The New York Times reported on the first high-resolution MRI study of meth addicts; "a forest fire of brain damage," according to Dr. Paul Thompson, an expert on brain mapping at the University of California. "We expected some brain changes, but didn't expect so much tissue to be destroyed."

Concentrations of methamphetamine in the brain are ten times higher than in the rest of the body.

The study examined 22 people in their thirties who had abused methamphetamine for 10 years, mostly by smoking it. It showed that the limbic region of the brain - involved in drug craving, reward, mood and emotion - lost 11% of its tissue, leaving addicts permanently depressed, anxious and unable to concentrate; the brain's centre for making new memories, the hippocampus, lost 8% of its tissue, comparable to the brain deficits in early Alzheimer's; and white matter - composed of nerve fibres that connect different areas of the brain - was severely inflamed, making the addicts' brains 10% larger than normal. While a major cause for alarm, the study found that the white matter was not dead, and, with abstinence, might recover.

Prior to this study, brain-imaging research of addicts using two-four grams of crystal a day revealed serious brain damage consistent with Alzheimer's disease, strokes and low level Parkinson's disease syndrome, itself a severe mental condition associated with the progressive loss of dopamine that induces loss of concentration, tremors and impaired movement/motor-control, equivalent to the brain aging 40 years.

Scientists plan to test medications that may be able to reverse some of the neurological damage and cognitive impairment caused by meth. One of the most promising, Selegiline, is used to treat some symptoms of Parkinson's disease and has neuroprotective properties that can reduce HIV-related cognitive deficits. Studies on vitamin E, which is thought to boost natural protective chemicals in the brain, are also planned.

Studies suggest that those who quit heavy meth use show a marked reduction in the brain's ability to produce dopamine for up to three years, and almost two-thirds remain depressed two to five years after they stop using.

PET (positron emission tomography) scans in such users show large black spaces where parts of the brain no longer function. Although there is mounting concern in the medical field that a number of former abusers will suffer irreversible brain damage, remaining forever dissatisfied with life and its rewards, an article in the April 2005 Archives Of General Psychiatry  concluded that changes in chemical activity in certain regions of the brain of former users suggest some recovery of neuronal structure and function.

Researchers at the University of Hawaii have received $15 million from the National Institutes of Health with another $15 million pending in other grants to examine the brains of meth users utilising the magnetic resonance imagining system at Queen's Medical Center in order to:

Explore the chemistry, physiology and structure of drug users' brains;

Determine the consequences of drug use on newborns, children, adults and former users, and;

Establish how drugs change the brain during different stages of life.

"[Meth] really affects their ability to function," said Dr. Linda Chang, a university researcher and co-director of the Neuroscience and Imagine Research Program at Queen's Medical Center. "We see loss of nerve cells in the brain, inflammation and addictive elements. It takes a long time for the brain to heal, at least a year or two before we see improvement," she said.

BRAIN IMAGING research
of ADDICTS using 2-4
grams A DAY revealed
SERIOUS BRAIN DAMAGE
...equivalent to the brain
aging 40
YEARS.