Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 12/3/2018 (1407 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Back in the 1980s, an American anti-drug commercial compared an egg sizzling in frying pan to illegal drug use.
"This is your brain on drugs... Any questions?" the message announced.
Since then, many iterations have aired because this visual analogy is so effective.
Of course drugs don’t literally cook your brain like an egg.
But they can be damaging to both mind and body — though some more than others. In fact, the illegal drug that comes closest to this analogy is methamphetamine.
The hard drug that goes by many names — crystal, meth, speed and crank, to name a few — has grown in popularity as a street drug in the last 30 years in North America, and more so in Winnipeg in recent months as police make large seizures of increasingly pure and potent batches of the crystalline stimulant.
Cheap and long-lasting, it provides users with seemingly endless energy and intense euphoria... at least at first.
It’s also incredibly harmful, leading to short- and long-term health problems that in some cases are irreversible.
To explain just why meth is so destructive, the Free Press asked two professors of pharmacology at the University of Manitoba to explain how methamphetamine affects the body.
Whether snorted, ingested, injected or smoked, meth primarily affects three neurotransmitters in the brain: dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. All are involved in our senses of pleasure, alertness and well being among others, says Gordon Glazner, an associate professor in the department of pharmacology and therapeutics at the U of M, and principal investigator for neurodegenerative disorders at St. Boniface Hospital Research.
"The massive release (of these neurotransmitters) will primarily cause two things: one, it will cause a sense of euphoria and two it will cause your brain to become excited."
These sensations obviously make meth popular. Yet its effects on these brain messaging chemicals are also what make it harmful.
In small doses, as with other stimulants such as cocaine and caffeine, users feel like they think more clearly and quickly.
It will improve the function of your brain, Glazner says, until you do too much, too often, "and it burns your brain out."
Because of its effect on these neurotransmitters, users also can find it difficult to stop doing meth. Specifically, its effect on dopamine levels makes limiting use challenging. Dopamine is involved in many roles in the brain, including movement. It’s also central to learning. "Dopamine is basically the reward pathway," says Don Miller, a colleague of Glazner’s in pharmacology at the U of M, who specializes in drug development treating brain disorders.
When we engage in behaviour that leads to positive outcomes, our brain releases dopamine, essentially training us that the action is desirable and should be repeated.
So a hug from a loved one or doing well on an exam can elicit dopamine responses, teaching your brain on a chemical level that these activities are worth repeating.
Methamphetamine, and cocaine for that matter, increase dopamine in the brain by blocking a mechanism that essentially recycles the neurotransmitter, ensuring we don’t get too stimulated. But methamphetamine takes it a step further. It also causes neurons to release more dopamine than usual.
"Based on this standpoint cocaine is probably a safer drug than (meth)amphetamine because it doesn’t do that double-whammy and hang around in the system as long," Miller says, adding that doesn’t make cocaine less harmful or addictive.
But methamphetamine lasts longer in the body, produces a more intense high, and as such, leads to more harmful outcomes.
Meth also causes a massive release of epinephrine — more so than cocaine, Glazner says. More commonly known as adrenaline, epinephrine stimulates our flight or fight response.
"What that does amongst other things is increases your heart rate and decreases blood flow to your peripheries while increasing blood pressure," he says. "Basically, your body is responding like it’s being chased by a tiger."
At first, these effects may be enjoyable. But they can also prove deadly in a small percentage of individuals sensitive to stimulants, in which the sudden boost in heart rate and blood pressure triggers a heart attack, stroke and even cardiac arrest.
"Unfortunately we have no idea how to identify these people," Glazner adds.
While dire outcomes from one-time use are rare, repeated use often leads to a bevy of harms. For instance, regular users can develop early onset cardiovascular disease and are at higher risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
"People also lose their teeth because they don’t have good blood flow to the gums," he says, referring to the slang term ‘meth mouth.’
"They get these skin lesions for the same reasons."
Long-term meth users sleep and eat less too, adding to the potential health problems. They’re more likely to be malnourished and run down. Consequently, they’re more prone to infections and wounds take longer to heal.
Users are also at risk of developing psychosis caused by over-activation of dopamine and other neurotransmitters.
"Very often you can have delusions, especially ones where you believe you are super powerful," Glazner says.
Some users even report hallucinations — smells or voices that don’t exist or a feeling of bugs crawling under the skin. They may also "tweak" engaging in repetitive movements or disassembling and assembling household items — a behaviour clinically referred to as ‘punding.’
Additionally, the boost of epinephrine can give individuals with meth-induced psychosis seemingly super-human strength because their flight or flight response is over-activated.
"It’s like where someone is trapped under a car, and you can lift something you shouldn’t be able to," Miller says.
Compounding problems, methamphetamine’s priming of our reward system makes it difficult to stop using the drug.
"The reward is like sex on steroids," he says. "It’s incredibly hard to kick that kind of reward."
That doesn’t necessarily lead to addiction, but it often leads to overuse, putting users at higher risk of the harmful side-effects.
And its potential for addiction is high because of how quickly and powerfully methamphetamine’s effects occur, Glazner says.
The spike of euphoria affects the limbic part of the brain, sometimes referred to as the reptile brain.
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"This is a reptilian response that lies underneath the conscious mind," he adds.
As such, users may feel compelled to chase the first pleasure burst. The problem is the more they use the less they feel desirable effects, prompting higher, more frequent doses and increased risks.
"If you take it often enough, you have a chance of burning out the pleasure centres of your brain, and you’re left with a condition called anhedonia," he says, adding this condition often goes away once users have stopped taking the drug for some time. But not always.
"An anhedonic person has the inability to feel pleasure," Glazner says, who often talks to students about meth’s dangers.
"My joke to them is it’s like living in junior high school your entire life."
Methamphetamine vs. amphetamine
What’s the difference? Both are similar, and activate the same parts of the brain, says pharmacologist Don Miller. Methamphetamine has a methyl group (an alkyl derived from methane) attached. “What adding that extra methyl group to amphetamine does is it extends the half-life — the ability of the body to get rid of it.” Thus, methamphetamine lasts longer.
A quick history of meth: Discovered in Japan in the late 1800s, and later in a powder form in 1919, it had widespread use in the Second World War by the Nazis (hence the term ‘Nazi crank’) because it was thought to keep troops more alert and fierce in battle. But the side effects were so negative, the German military cut back use after 1940, says the book Shooting Up: A Short History of Drugs and War by Lukasz Kamiensky. Since then, pharmaceutical companies have produced methamphetamine to treat a variety of conditions, including narcolepsy, obesity and attention deficit disorders. Currently sold under the trademark, Desoxyn, it is still prescribed clinically on rare occasions. But generally, Miller says physicians prescribe better drugs with fewer side effects to treat these conditions.