Why the Myth of the Meth-Damaged Brain May Hinder Recovery

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Methamphetamine is widely believed to cause brain damage and cognitive impairment in users. But this claim may be wildly overblown, according to a new review of the research.

In 2004, the New York Times ran a story about how meth use eats away brain cells, headlining it this way: “This Is Your Brain on Meth: A ‘Forest Fire’ of Damage.” In 2005, another Times piece about the rise in foster children taken from parents who use meth noted the “particularly potent and destructive nature” of the drug and claimed that “rehabilitation for methamphetamine often takes longer than it does for other drugs.” And the authors of a 2002 study on the brain-robbing effects of meth warned, based on their data, that the “national campaign against drugs should incorporate information about the cognitive deficits associated with methamphetamine.”

Now reviewers led by Carl Hart, associate professor of psychology at Columbia University, have examined more than 40 studies of the effects of methamphetamine, including lab research on short-term effects, brain-imaging data, and cognitive tests done on long-term meth users who had quit. (Full disclosure: Hart and I are currently writing a book together.) What they found was that the claims of meth-related harm to the brain may be as exaggerated as the hype from the ’80s and ’90s around children exposed prenatally to crack cocaine, who were foretold to end up with lifelong disabilities, or of even earlier claims that smoking pot caused insanity.

The studies on meth did find differences in both the brains and in the performance of methamphetamine users when compared to controls. And animal research has also shown that large doses of methamphetamine can cause major damage to the brain’s dopamine receptors, which are important for motivation, movement, pleasure and choice. Thus, many researchers had concluded that the drug was seriously dangerous to the brain.

MORE: Viewpoint: Teaching Recovery, Rather Than Treating Addiction

But after digging into the data as a whole, Hart and his colleagues revealed a much more hopeful picture. For one thing, he says, the lab studies on the short-term effects of meth show improvements in attention, memory, information processing and learning in users. That’s not entirely surprising considering that some forms of amphetamine (DesOxyn, for example, which is pure pharmaceutical methamphetamine) are actually approved by the government to treat ADHD, and are sometimes misused by college students seeking better grades.

Secondly, Hart found that the studies that claimed methamphetamine users were less intelligent than non-users had several typical flaws. The first was that the control groups were not always appropriately matched to the methamphetamine users. “You have to compare them with people of the same level of education and same age, because age and education are both important factors for cognitive functioning,” says Hart, explaining that in some studies, the drug users had only a high school education but were being compared with college students. Obviously, that would make the high school-educated group look worse — methamphetamine or no methamphetamine.

Moreover, even if you have the right control group, simply showing that one group does worse than another, statistically speaking, doesn’t necessarily mean that the second group is “impaired.”

“Statistical significance is just a mathematical difference,” says Hart. “When we compare, say, artists with professors, you can probably find some statistically significant differences in cognitive test performance, but no one would say that this means artists are clinically significantly different from the professors [or are impaired].”

In other words, Hart says, showing a statistically significant difference on a test is one thing, but showing a clinical difference — that is, true impairment in terms of functioning in everyday life — is something else entirely.

MORE: Why Kids With High IQs Are More Likely to Take Drugs

What about the scary animal data showing destruction of dopamine neurons in the brain? Hart says that in these studies, rats were typically given massive doses of meth that no human user would take initially. “It’s 20 to 100 times that what humans would take,” he says, explaining that human users usually start with lower doses, and then may increase their usage over time. When rats are similarly given the drugs in this more gradual pattern, this type of brain damage is not seen.

Even the brain-imaging findings are more reassuring than they have been claimed to be. Chris-Ellyn Johanson, a neuroscientist who is now retired from Wayne State University, conducted one of the studies on this subject covered in the review. “We did find some differences between the control group and the experimental group in terms of a few cognitive functions. And we did find some differences in terms of receptors [in the brain],” she says. “But we found no relationship between the two, and the cognitive differences were within the normal range.”

That is, the differences in brain structure in meth users’ brains didn’t correlate to differences in cognitive function. Observing that people’s brain structure or receptor patterns are unusual may be interesting, but it doesn’t matter much unless those differences are also linked to specific problems. “It’s like taking the engine of a BMW and comparing it with the engine of a Mercedes,” says Hart. “The Mercedes might be bigger. But saying that means that the BMW is impaired — that’s what we’re doing with this imaging.”

The review even takes on “meth mouth,” noting that the dry mouth symptoms that have been blamed for the terrible dental problems seen in some methamphetamine users also accompany the use of legal amphetamines and some antidepressant medications.  The authors write that the association between methamphetamine use and dental problems may have “less to do with pharmacological effects of methamphetamine and more to
do with non-pharmacological factors, ranging from poor dental hygiene to media sensationalism. Indeed, much of the evidence linking methamphetamine abuse and tooth
decay is anecdotal; detailed investigations of the impact of methamphetamine abuse on dental health with suitable oral health assessments are lacking.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that illegal methamphetamine use is safe. And the types of studies included in the new review may still be helpful in terms of helping researchers learn more about the mechanisms of addiction and to better treat people with drug problems. “The hype and all that aside, there are still good reasons to do this research, and some findings may point the way to more novel pharmaceutical [treatments],” says Johanson.

MORE: What Does Meth Research Have to Do With Addiction and Autism Treatments? (It’s Oxytocin.)

The problem is that the hype may do serious damage to those struggling with methamphetamine problems. “One of the major reasons I did the review is that one of the most effective treatments is cognitive behavioral therapy,” says Hart. “The argument has been made that these people can’t benefit because they are cognitively impaired and can’t pay attention. There’s no scientific evidence to support that position.”

Indeed, the idea that those who take methamphetamine are more likely to fail at treatment or need longer-term care than people with other addictions is not supported by the data, either. Unfortunately, by pushing the idea that methamphetamine damages the brain, researchers may inadvertently deter treatment seeking, both by making people with addictions feel hopeless and by making providers have less faith in their ability to help.

Impaired, deficits, cognitive deterioration, decline — all those kinds of words are inappropriate,” says Hart. “There haven’t been any treatment outcome differences. I think that we have almost exclusively focused on the pathology of drug users and if you only look at pathology, that’s all you find.”

If differences aren’t reliably linked to problems, they may be useful in ultimately helping researchers learn something about the brain, but they don’t tell us anything about how to treat methamphetamine problems. Claims of cognitive impairment—and other severe problems associated with drug use—need to be made cautiously in light of their history of failure to be replicated in careful studies and their proven ability to stigmatize people.

The review was published in Neuropsychopharmacology.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

8 comments
CustomCanvases
CustomCanvases

I believe that meth users are actually very successful. By using meth and getting high when they seek to, they are actually accomplishing their goals again and again. Im not saying its the best goal to have, it is just the fact that they can come up with so many different ways to actually get the drug or high, In itself is commendable.

jerrycecille
jerrycecille

I don't think they take into effect the fact that most meth users who show signs of behavior problems, meth mouth, sores, also get that way not directly because of smoking it. They get that because they don't stop smoking and take time to eat, drink water, sleep every night, brush their teeth and take a bath everyday. All these things can be associated with not taking care of yourself. 

You can be depressed, moody, angry, paranoid, forgetful and unable to comprehend. All that comes from smoking so much you cant sleep and staying up for days without sleep. 

Your mouth and teeth can be damaged due to the increase in acidity from smoking meth and since your smoking everyday and distracted on the many things you do while smoking, you can forget to brush for days at a time. 

You can lose a lot of weight and look sick due to meth making you feel not hungry. Therefore, not eating and the lack of water also means not getting the vitamins and minerals the body needs daily to stay healthy.

Your skin can get very nasty looking and the fact that you do not bathe can cause you to scratch yourself because your skin feels itchy. Which can cause skin to be dry and have sores and blisters.

There are many people that smoke meth and you will never know. If you can control yourself, you can smoke meth without the usual look of an addict. If you smoke in the morning and not smoke any for the rest of the day, eat the normal meals per day and drink plenty of water throughout the day, bathe and brush your teeth at least twice a day. You can smoke the meth and have the benefits and not look like the typical meth users.


JavierAlbertoGerardo
JavierAlbertoGerardo

@jerrycecille It is true Jerry, if you do eat, bathe, brush your teeth, you may not look as badly as other meth users who dont take care of themselves, but in the end, who has more damages to their body, people who do smoke, or people who dont smoke? Even with cigarrates, at long term even if you do drink water, take your meals and vitamins, in ten to fifteen years or more, you will start looking like a long term smoker than a regular person. So all this to come to the conclusion that meth user have nothing to gain, but "happyness" or whatever ther euforia is, wich as a matter of fact i have been a meth addict for three months, and it was awfully hard to stop doing it. Now im only left with health problems, family problems, and many other personal problems than in my criteria are not worth it. 

AlecSevins
AlecSevins

This reads a bit like global warming denial and cherry picking to ignore the general consensus. Why aren't there more articles like this? The words "myth" or "truth" in headlines make me suspect an agenda when the majority of findings counter an author's points.

AndrewRobins
AndrewRobins

@AlecSevins I understand your concerns but if you read articles, watch videos, look into all that anti-meth propaganda its over-exaggerated. Like most anti-drug stuff. All it focuses on is the long term effects of people who don't take care of themselves. I know what it can cause, and if I were to do it I'd drink water, brush my teeth, and bathe on a regular basis. If you decide to do the drug, be smart about it. Focus on not letting yourself go. Its really not hard to do. The people who let themselves go typically don't really care about themselves to begin with. They feel ashamed and worthless. No one is worthless, and theres no need to be ashamed. As long as you know its really not good for you, its your business if you choose to do it or not.

cloudface
cloudface

I agree with Billie...more specifically, I've lived with both an addict and a former addict and the list of characteristics of those with "methamphetamine induced brain damage" do correlate to how they act; arguing that a short term massive dose does more damage than a long term addiction in no way refutes the "myth"...if you speak to an ex user and don't find them cognitively impaired then it's more likely because they had a higher than normal IQ to start with, an ex-user that started with an average intelligence will always show themselves to have cognitive functioning problems if you give them long enough or pay enough attention to them.

billie59ruth
billie59ruth

This article is hog wash. Apparently the author has never had a loved one addicted to meth!

barrett.gray87
barrett.gray87

Thank you for employment of the scientific method towards this topic. The media and other outlets are critically influenced by untruthful sensationalism surrounding meth. As stated in this article these fallacies hinder practical and pertinent approaches to treament strategies and therefore, outcomes.