Research Watch: Alert: Brain Damage from Drug Use

Diana Zuckerman
November 1, 2000

Thomas Ernst, Ph.D., Linda Chang, M.D., Maria Leonido-Yee, M.D., and Oliver Speck, Ph.D.

Neurology, Vol. 34, March 28, 2000, pp. 1344-49.

Free copy available from Dr. Ernst at Dept. of Radiology, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, 1124 W. Carson St., B-4, Torrance, CA 90502, (310) 222-5656, or

Methamphetamine, also known as 'speed,' 'crank,' 'crystal' or 'ice,' causes brain cell damage that can still be seen long after drug abuse has stopped, according to this new study.

"Methamphetamine may be substantially toxic to human brain cells," says author Thomas Ernst. Ernst believes it alters brain chemistry, and therefore dependence should be considered an organic brain disease.

Methamphetamine abuse has risen in recent years, with some hospitals reporting a six-fold increase in meth-related emergency department cases over the past decade. A 1996 survey reported that nearly 5 million Americans have used the drug, up from about 3.8 million in 1994. Use among rural American high school students is substantially higher compared to students living in metropolitan areas.

The researchers studied 26 previous meth abusers and 24 healthy non-drug users, using a non-invasive technique to measure chemical levels in the brain to determine whether use caused lasting injury to brain cells. The drug abusers had not used meth for at least two weeks; some had not used it for 21 months.

The article is very technical and provides details intended for those who understand the physiology of the brain. The findings focus on concentrations of the chemical N-acetyl-aspartate, a brain metabolite present only in neurons, which are the brain cells used for thinking. In the meth abusers, concentrations of N-acetyl-aspartate were reduced by 5 percent in the basal ganglia brain region and by 6 percent in the brain's frontal white matter.

Many brain diseases, such as Alzheimer's, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, brain tumors, stroke and HIV brain diseases have also shown decreased N-acetyl-aspartate. The researchers concluded that meth had caused damage in three regions of the brain as a result of long-term use.

Previous studies had shown that the drug kills brain cells in animals and causes serious long-term abnormalities in humans.

The study assessed potential long-term damage to the human brain, but not whether these changes are permanent. Some animal research has shown brain abnormalities for up to four years after exposure to meth. Ernst and other researchers are conducting additional studies to determine whether the brain changes may be reversed with treatment.

Zuckerman, Diana. "Alert: Brain Damage from Drug Use." Research Watch review of "Evidence for Long-Term Neurotoxicity Associated with Methamphetamine Abuse." Youth Today, November 2000, p. 56.

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