Reversibility of Methamphetamine-Related Brain Damage
Methamphetamine is known for its ability to damage normal brain function in its users. Unfortunately, some of the damage done by the drug increases the likelihood that recovering addicts will experience a relapse and return to active methamphetamine abuse. At one time, doctors and researchers believed that meth addicts were incapable of regaining the mental function required to significantly decrease any relapse risks. However, current evidence indicates that many of the brain deficits that can lead to relapse will gradually fade away if people addicted to the drug can remain in recovery for an initial, crucial period of time.
Methamphetamine makes several damaging changes inside the brain that grow worse with continuing drug use. First, it alters normal levels of a group of chemicals that act as neurotransmitters by relaying specific types of signals between the nerve cells (neurons) contained in various brain regions. Drastic increases in one particular neurotransmitter, called dopamine, are largely responsible for the long-term changes that support meth addiction. Eventually, habitual abuse of methamphetamine will significantly reduce the brain’s ability to produce dopamine and a mood-regulating neurotransmitter called serotonin. The long-term presence of meth also literally restructures parts of the brain by increasing the activity of immune system proteins called cytokines, which respond to the actions of the drug by creating new neuron connections that ultimately support addictive behaviors. In addition, the chemical actions of methamphetamine can directly kill off some of the neurons within the brain.
Methamphetamine doesn’t just produce its effects on isolated brain areas. Instead, it produces effects that change normal function throughout the brain. Specific areas or structures negatively impacted by methamphetamine include the limbic system, which acts as the body’s center for pleasure and reward; the striatum, which helps regulate goal-oriented motivation; the hippocampus, which helps regulate critical memory functions; the amygdala, which helps regulate emotional self-control; several different structures that contribute to other forms of self-control; and the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex, which act as the center for decision-making and other higher-level thought processes.
Timeframe and Effects
Methamphetamine doesn’t produce all of its negative brain impacts at once; rather, these impacts occur at different rates of speed as use of the drug continues. For instance, meth-related cell death can produce significant decreases in self-control in a matter of hours following even one large dose of the drug. On the other hand, the neuron changes that support long-term addiction occur gradually over time, as do meth-related decreases in dopamine and serotonin levels. Specific effects of the brain changes triggered by methamphetamine abuse and addiction commonly include loss of normal impulse control, depression, irritability, anxiety, loss of self-motivation, and drastic mood swings that can lead to unpredictably aggressive and/or violent behavior.
Reversibility of Damage
Some of the brain damage caused by methamphetamine is chemical, not structural. If a meth addict stops using the drug and enters recovery, these chemical problems frequently reverse themselves over a period of several months to a year. Specific aspects of brain function that commonly improve during this timeframe include the ability to regulate mood-related behaviors, the ability to sleep without significant disruptions, and the ability to concentrate, focus and get motivated for various common tasks. However, one of the areas where newly recovering methamphetamine addicts typically see very little improvement is control over impulsive behaviors. This is true because much of the damage that leads to loss of impulse control stems from brain cell death, not alterations in brain chemical levels.
As indicated previously, doctors and scientists once believed that loss of normal impulse control was a more or less permanent after effect of meth addiction. Since impulse control is critical for avoiding drug relapse, this meant that meth addicts appeared to have permanently elevated risks for returning to active drug use. However, according to a study published in 2009 in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, recovering addicts do start to regain their impulse control slowly over time. Typically, real gains in this control only appear when any given methamphetamine addict has maintained drug abstinence for at least a year. In some cases, recovering addicts don’t experience the impulse-related benefits of abstinence for considerably longer periods of time.
No one knows exactly how physically damaged structures in the brain’s impulse control center regain their function after meth use ceases, the authors of the study in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment note. In addition, no one really knows whether specific forms of behavioral therapy can help speed up this physical recovery process. However, if recovering addicts manage to stay away from methamphetamine for at least a year, they have fairly good chances of reducing their relapse risks for the future.