Asana Recovery

What Does Meth Do to Your Brain?

man sitting on bed head down covering face with handsMethamphetamine is an amphetamine-class drug similar to Adderall and other prescription medications. It’s also illegal, mostly because it’s stronger and has more side-effects than those drugs. Most Americans recognize that meth is dangerous – yet 0.4% of the U.S. population uses or is addicted to it. That means 4 out of every 1000 Americans uses methamphetamine.

It’s true that amphetamines are regularly used in controlled situations to help people with ADHD. But, in large doses and over time, amphetamines can drastically impact the brain. In fact, studies show that long-term methamphetamine abuse can alter the size and activity of areas in the brain, changing your personality, ability to think, and even physical capabilities.

While these physical changes to the brain are unlikely over the short-term, short-term users also see changes. That’s normally through shifts in dopamine and GABA production – impacting the reward system and the emotions. These impacts can be considerable, as nearly anyone who’s used meth or been around someone who has can tell you. Understanding the short and long-term risks of using meth is important if you want to navigate this drug safely – or help your loved one to do so.

What is Meth?

Methamphetamine, commonly shortened to meth, is a central nervous stimulant. It’s an amphetamine, a drug class known to impact the brain by stimulating the central nervous system. Users who take it see short-term effects like alertness, increased activity, euphoria, and sexual desire. Those same chemicals also push breathing problems, increased blood pressure, restlessness, decreased appetite, and even hyperthermia or overheating. These can be considerable and get worse when the drug is taken in large quantities. In fact, hyperthermia, cardiac arrest, and hyperthermia are the most common causes of overdose death.

Methamphetamine also affects motor controls and motivation. That’s why most meth users experience a 4-28-hour high, during which they do everything. They behave in a manic fashion. Afterwards, they crash, having extended the body’s ability to stay awake. Meth crashes include both short-term withdrawal and the release of toxin buildup in the brain. For example, the brain normally uses sleep to flush out waste from processing glucose into energy and to bring in new glucose. Without sleep, the brain is forced to use resources already in the brain, essentially cannibalizing itself. The result, a meth crash is intense, tiring, and patients sometimes sleep for several days following a high.

Long-Term Effects of Meth

Over the short-term, the body is very able to recover from something unhealthy. Most meth users start out slow and build up. They start to lose weight, they start to have dental problems, they start to complain of itching or skin crawling. As the brain is affected more and more, mental symptoms also become more persistent.

  • Psychosis (skin crawling, itching, paranoia, seeing things that aren’t there)
  • Violent behavior
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Memory loss
  • Loss of attention span
  • Motor skill impairment (e.g., someone who was good at guitar might be losing skill, and rapidly, they might also just walk with a weird gait)
  • Confusion
  • Anxiety and paranoia
  • Obsession over meth
  • Failure to recognize or realize a problem
  • Recognizing meth use is a problem but taking it anyway
  • Substance use disorder

In most cases, these symptoms start out light and build up. Most might not notice them as anything more than someone having a bad day at first. Eventually, it becomes persistent.

Get Your Questions Answered

glum girl during psychotherapy sessionOf the long-term effects, emotional blunting, psychosis, and addiction are the most prominent:

Emotional Blunting – Individuals with an ongoing meth use problem often struggle with emotional blunting. Here, the brain becomes accustomed to high input of dopamine. It stops producing dopamine on its own. In addition, methamphetamine burns nerve endings in the brain. The strong sense of euphoria associated with methamphetamine acts as a numbing agent to everything else. Someone with a meth addiction literally struggles to feel anything else because their brain is so overwhelmed. That can make it difficult to enjoy simple pleasures like a meal, a hug from a loved one, or reciprocation, because you struggle to feel at all. Emotional blunting is also one of the reasons it’s so difficult to get people with methamphetamine problems into treatment. Getting them to recognize a problem and to build motivation for change might be impossible for their brain to do.

Psychosis – Psychosis is often the first thing people notice when someone starts using meth a lot. Normally, that begins with chronic tics. People repeat motions. They slap things. They constantly itch. They start to get paranoid, even to the point of aggression. And, in many cases, they start to complain of flies or bugs, usually crawling on their skin. They might pick at and scratch their skin till it bleeds. Eventually, heavier users will have psychotic episodes and breakdowns. These might revolve around confusion, violence, aggression, insomnia, or anxiety – but will always build up over time. Sometimes this psychosis extends to full auditory and visual hallucinations and delusions, which they may have trouble telling from real life.

Addiction – Methamphetamine is one of the most addictive drugs. In fact, methamphetamine causes addiction quickly and builds up both mental and physical addiction. When you add the fact that meth withdrawal is difficult, physically dangerous, and sometimes impossible for individuals facing responsibilities, the drug is extremely difficult to put down. Recovering from meth addiction normally means a lengthy detox period followed by behavioral therapy. Even then, it still takes most individuals years to recover fully. 

So, Does Meth Change Your Brain?

Yes. Long-term meth use causes physical changes to the brain. These changes are visible using neuroimaging and MRI scans. Additionally, not all changes are visible. For example, differences in activity can sometimes be traced, but not always. We do know that methamphetamine inhibits how dopamine binds to transporters – this causes emotional blunting. It also negatively impacts memory, learning, cognition, and even motor controls. Meth also increases the presence of non-neural brain cells known as microglia. These are responsible for protecting the brain, similarly to how antibodies work in the blood. And, much like antibodies, if you have too many of them, they start to attack the brain.

Other big changes include functional and structural changes to areas relating to emotion, memory, and behavior. That’s why heavy methamphetamine users are very likely to invest in repetitive behaviors and tics – even when they’ve been clean for some time.

The good news? None of these changes are perfect. Just 6 months of abstinence results in significant recovery. Most users in a 3-year study recovered most normal brain functionality after 2 years. So, recovery from meth is lengthy, but very possible. And, the sooner you start, the sooner you recover.

Moving Forward

Not everyone is in the right place to get help. But, seeking out rehab and treatment is the only way forward from meth. Methamphetamine is difficult and dangerous to quit on your own. You can try. But, the support and assistance offered by therapists, counselors, and nurses can give you the tools to recover, learn new skills, and build a life you can live without meth. Recovery doesn’t happen overnight. But it can and will happen with effort.

If you or a loved one need help with quitting meth, or other drugs or alcohol, consider Asana Recovery. We offer medical detox, along with both residential and outpatient substance abuse programs, and you’ll be supervised by a highly trained addiction treatment team of medical professionals, counselors, and therapists. Call us any time at (949) 565-4067.