Meth and the Brain

During the past decade, some of the most important research in the drug abuse field has shown that meth use produces very profound changes in the human brain. These changes affect the way people think, feel and behave. Many of the challenges faced by patients in meth recovery are a result of how their brain has been affected by using the drug. The good news is that in most respects, the brain can recover from the changes caused by methamphetamine, but this healing takes time.

How Meth Changes the Brain

During methamphetamine use, levels of key brain chemicals are elevated. Over time, these brain chemicals become depleted, and the nerve cells that produce them are damaged. Brain imaging studies such as PET scans and MRI scans, which essentially, take picture of the brain, have shown how methamphetamine changes the way the brain works.

Methamphetamine substantially affects two critical brain chemicals: dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine, the brain's primary pleasure chemical, plays an important role in memory, judgment and emotions. Serotonin plays a major role in sleep, appetite, sexual behavior, and aggression. Damage to the nerve cells that produce these chemicals becomes increasingly severe as higher doses of methamphetamine are used over longer time periods. Methamphetamine-induced euphoria, psychosis, appetite suppression, and increased energy are all caused by changes in the nerve cells that produce dopamine and serotonin.

Effects on the Brain After Meth Use Stops

Brain imaging has shown that methamphetamine use results in significant injury to the brain. During the early months of recovery, clinical symptoms of brain injury may worsen. The parts of the brain that control memory, judgment, impulse control, and mood states are damaged. As a result, methamphetamineaddicted individuals in recovery show extensive memory problems and have difficulty making good judgments.

Clients also suffer from extreme emotional swings and a profound loss of ability to experience pleasure (anhedonia). One of the most problematic of symptoms during recovery, anhedonia is often expressed by patients with statements like, If this is how it is going to feel to be sober, I don't think I can live like this for the rest of my life.

Recovery of Brain Function

Many of the changes in brain functioning are reversible. However, not all effects are reversed according to the same timetable. Many, but not all, of the memory deficits appear to recover in the first few weeks of abstinence from methamphetamine. Sleep patterns and dream states are disrupted for several months.