Why is meth so addictive?

03/05/2009 6:25 PM

10/19/2009 10:51 AM

At least as addictive as heroin, methamphetamine triggers dependency faster than almost all other illegal drugs. It’s three times as powerful as cocaine and it is among the hardest drugs to permanently quit.

“We often see people who’ve become addicted after one or two uses,” says Jim Peck, a clinical psychologist and researcher at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, who has worked for years with meth addicts. “It’s that powerful.”

Methamphetamine is a stimulant that profoundly affects the brain. It causes the body to release 10 times its normal level of dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical. It also prompts a rush of norepinephrine, or adrenaline.

All that boosts a user’s heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. It erases rational decision-making as well as the body’s cravings for food and sleep.

It also sets off intense pleasure and euphoria. “It’s like a super-high,” Peck says. “And it’s like a deep, dark hole of depression when you come down.”

A fix of a quarter-gram or less can keep its user high for as long as 12 hours, compared with cocaine’s two hours.

Here’s how meth users become addicted:

Dopamine affects the brain’s limbic system, the parts responsible for emotion, learning and memory. The first few times a meth user gets high, it’s a conscious choice. The decision to take meth is made in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which handles voluntary actions.

By the third use or so, research shows, the decision to take meth moves to an entirely different part of the brain, the hind brain, which controls involuntary functions, such as breathing.

“Meth actually changes your brain,” Peck says. “The brain elevates your need for the drug to the same level as anything else you have to do to survive, like breathing. It starts sending signals saying, ‘You have got to get more of that stuff right now.’”

After a meth user permanently quits the drug, it can take as long as two years for his brain to go back to the way it was before.

Longterm success rates for addicts who attempt to quit meth are about the same as most other hard illegal drugs — roughly 50 percent.

But it usually takes meth users far longer to recover than other addicts, Peck says, and it usually involves several more treatment attempts.

“I’ve seen meth addicts who’ve been clean 10 years get pulled back in,” says Ray Framstad, an agent with the Merced Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force. “The smallest thing can trigger it and take you right back. It’s just that powerful.”

Unlike methadone for heroin addicts, there is no FDA-approved drug to help meth users end their dependency.

Instead, it's all up to them.

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