Meth and Brain Damage

The intense rush that comes with a meth “high” takes a horrendous toll on the brain and body. When used on a repeated basis, these effects lead to addiction and cause widespread brain damage. Because this drug is so highly addictive, meth and brain damage tend to go hand-in-hand.

How Meth Works

Like other stimulant drugs, meth or methamphetamine speeds up the chemical processes that regulate the body’s central nervous system (CNS). Unlike other stimulant drugs, meth can cause widespread brain damage with chronic use. Meth’s effects on dopamine, one of the chemicals in the CNS, play a central role in creating addiction, which is the driving force behind out-of-control drug abuse practices.

Part of what makes meth so dangerous has to do with how it’s made. The ingredients can be found in any drugstore, grocery store, or hardware store. Many of them are toxic, which only worsens meth’s damaging effects. Ingredients commonly used include ephedrine, drain cleaner, battery acid, and antifreeze. Considering the toxic materials contained in this drug, chronic meth addicts experience ongoing brain damage for as long as they use the drug.

Meth Kills Brain Cells 

Meth brain damage starts on the cellular level, breaking down the brain’s cells or neurons on both a structural and chemical level. One type of cell affected is the glial cells, which exist throughout the body’s CNS. Glial cells fulfill many roles that enable the CNS to function as a communication network. Some of these roles include:

  • Allows neurons to send electrical signals to one another
  • It helps build the myelin sheaths that encase neurons, which allows for fast signaling between cells
  • Protects neurons from damage
  • Helps prevent infections

Effects had on glial cells extend to the glial progenitor cells, which are immature cells that grow into the various types of glial cells found throughout the central nervous system. As meth destroys this vital cell population, myelin materials start to decrease throughout the brain. When this happens, brain function declines as signaling between neurons becomes less and less efficient.

Over time, cells damaged by meth’s effects eventually die off. The size of the brain actually shrinks as cell death progresses. The good news is the human brain has a limited capacity to regenerate new cells when damage occurs, or cells die off. This means occasional meth use may not cause significant damage. For chronic meth users, much of the damage will likely be permanent.

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Areas of the Brain Affected by Meth Abuse

Because of how meth targets basic CNS materials (glial cells and myelin), more than a few brain areas are impacted when using this drug.

The prefrontal cortex, which regulates cognitive functions, such as planning, thinking, attention, judgment, and decision-making undergoes considerable damage. Other areas affected by meth abuse include:

  • The striatum – regulates voluntary movement
  • The hippocampus – enables learning and memory functions
  • The cerebellum – assists with movement and cognitive functions
  • The parietal cortex – allows you to visualize objects in space and remember nonverbal material
  • Subcortical structures, including the pleasure center and the limbic system (regulates emotions)

Effects of Meth and Brain Damage in Daily Life

Cognitive Problems

Difficulties performing cognitive tasks can limit a person’s ability to hold down a job, keep up in school, and even hold a conversation. Chronic meth users may also experience problems with being able to focus on a task, do two tasks simultaneously, and concentrate for any length of time. Diminished cognitive abilities may also affect a person’s memory and ability to retain information. These problems can persist long after drug use stops.

Impulse Control 

Methamphetamine’s effects on the brain’s chemical system extend well past dopamine-level increases. Meth also interferes with glutamate, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate electrical activity in the brain. With repeated use, over-stimulation of the cells that secrete glutamate “short-circuits” the brain’s electrical system. These effects impair several areas of the brain, including those involved with emotions, movement, judgment, decision-making, and impulse control.

This type of meth brain damage explains many of the volatile behaviors exhibited by someone who abuses meth on a regular basis, including:

  • Aggression
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Twitching, such as facial tics and jerky movements
  • Hyperactivity
  • Agitation

Suicidal Tendencies

A amphetamine high results from massive amounts of dopamine and serotonin flooding the brain. For the most part, dopamine and serotonin chemical levels determine your overall mood at any given time of day. Meth not only forces brain cells to release these chemicals but also prevents the brain from reabsorbing and recycling them for future use.

After so many months or years of meth abuse, these chemicals become depleted, so no amount of meth will make a person feel better. Once you reach this point, feelings of hopeless and despair become more prominent. These conditions make you more prone to engaging in suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Serious Psychological Problems

The potential for developing full-blown psychological disorders is yet another effect of meth addiction and brain damage. This is especially true for someone who has pre-existing mental health issues, such as depression symptoms or bipolar disorder. In effect, meth causes rampant chemical imbalances throughout the brain that loosen a person’s grip on reality.

Psychiatric conditions commonly associated with meth addiction include:

  • Clinical depression
  • Paranoid delusions
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Schizophrenia

Overall, the devastating effects of meth addiction only get worse with time. While many who are caught up in meth abuse have no choice but to seek treatment help, it doesn’t have to be that way. If you suspect you or someone you know is at risk of becoming addicted to methamphetamine, the time to get help is now. The sooner you take steps to stop using this drug, the better your chance of making a full recovery.


Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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