Meth Hastens Ravages of Time
> 8/29/2007 1:17:53 PM

The Faces of Meth gallery documents the frightening speed with which attractive faces become grotesque. Mug shots taken only a short time after the first drug bust are almost unrecognizable after meth has taken its toll. These photographs are a useful deterrent, but they only tell half the story. As smiles and eyes wither, so do neurons. The National Institute on Drug Abuse summarizes three decades of research to state that, while meth has not been shown to directly kill neurons, it does clip nerve endings in a way that impedes regrowth. 

Dr. Jacqueline McGinty recently published an article in The Journal of Neuroscience detailing the havoc that meth wrecked on dopamine and serotonin function in mouse brains. Insufficient dopamine has been linked to age-related motor problems such as the tremors of Parkinson's Disease. Mice had both short and long-term damage. Two weeks after being exposed to a large amount of meth, dopamine levels sagged, and a year later when these mice reached old age, they were at greater risk for developing movement problems.

Dr. McGinty made an even more important discovery by including a group of mice in the experiment that lacked one of the genes for glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor. GDNF has many functions, but its primary responsibility is protecting dopaminergic neurons. The GDNF-deficient mice suffered more extensive brain damage when exposed to the same amount of meth. This elevated risk is germane to human drug problems because it suggests that those with suboptimal GDNF should be particularly careful about abusing meth.

The general population has wide GDNF variation, so while there are many addicts who might be able to escape with relatively minor brain damage, there are many others who would doom themselves with just one binge. Because motor problems do not surface until later in life, and because short-term side-effects can appear transitory, young abusers cannot know how much danger they are putting themselves in unless they know how well their dopaminergic neurons are protected. In 2005, Monitoring the Future found that 4.5% of high-school seniors had tried meth at least once, most probably assuming that they would be the lucky few who came out unscathed. In the absence of certainty, it is a better bet not to gamble your brain.

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