Methamphetamine: Physiological effects

Last modified: Monday, 1. June 2009 - 6:20 am

Methamphetamine is a very powerful stimulant that affects the central nervous system (CNS). The CNS is associated with thought and emotions, and movement, along with basic body functions such as heart rate and breathing rate. The brain and spinal cord are the major anatomical components of the CNS. Any substance, like methamphetamine, that can cause major changes in the CNS can most certainly have major and sometimes deadly consequences.
Two neurochemicals that are vitally important for the proper functioning of the CNS are dopamine and serotonin. By alternating the levels of both dopamine and serotonin in the CNS, methamphetamine is able to cause a wide range of Physiological effects.
By directly affecting the central nervous system, methamphetamine initially causes a generalized feeling of energy, increased concentration, and lack of appetite. However, the initial feelings of mental enhancement soon give way to anxiety, depression, confusion, paranoia, and hallucinations. Seizures and convulsions are common side effects of methamphetamine use.
Methamphetamines indirectly cause side effects to many other areas of the body through their actions on the CNS. Concerning the heart, methamphetamine use can cause an increased and/or irregular heart rate; heart pains that a user may believe is a heart attack (and may actually be a heart attack); skipped heart beats, or palpitations; high or low blood pressure; and the bursting of blood vessels in the heart called an arterial aneurysm.
Methamphetamine can have damaging effects on the lungs. Its use can cause shortness of breath, wheezing, and asthma. There have been reports of a condition called pneumothorax among methamphetamine users that occurs when the lining of the lung actually rips away from the chest wall, causing a part of the lung to collapse.
Further into the body, methamphetamine has been implicated in damages to the kidney and liver. In the kidney, methamphetamine use has been shown to cause acute kidney failure by constriction of the blood vessels that nourish the kidney. In the liver, methamphetamines have been shown to cause direct liver damage both through the drug itself and through the many contaminants street methamphetamine often contains.
Harmful side effects
Through its action on the dopamine and serotonin neurons in the brain, methamphetamine can cause paranoia, hallucinations, and severe mood disturbances. Methampethamine can also cause stroke through an increase in blood pressure, along with seizures. Other commonly seen side effects include irregular heart rate, damage to small blood vessels in the brain and eyes, and hyperthermia, which is an unregulated increase in the body’s temperature.
The effects of methamphetamine on unborn babies in pregnant women can be significant. Methamphetamine has been known to cause spontaneous abortions or severe birth defects. Babies born to mothers who use methamphetamine often have low birth weights, tremors, excessive crying spells, along with behavioral disorders that can last well into late childhood.
Long-term health effects
The most problematic long-term health effect of methamphetamine use is addiction, which can be considered a chronic, hard-to-treat disease characterized by chronic drug-seeking behavior and drug use. Methamphetamine is known to cause long-term changes to the brain, and scientists are just now beginning to understand how damaging these changes can be. Chronically addicted methamphetamine users can exhibit antisocial symptoms such as erratic violent behavior. Other long-term mental and behavioral changes that are seen include confusion, paranoia, auditory and visual hallucinations, and the sensation of insects crawling on the skin that is called “formication.” There can be such extensive damage to the brain from long-term use that it is often difficult to recognize a methamphetamine abuser from a person who has chronic schizophrenia.
Several recent studies have used brain-imaging studies to show the damaging effects of long-term methamphetamine use. In a study of 26 long-term metamphetamine users in California, magnetic resonance spectroscopy showed that the brains of these users had extensive damage as compared to people who were not long-term methamphetamine users. Another study in 2001 showed through the use of positron emission tomography (PET) scanning that the brains of long-term users of methamphetamine had significantly less neurons (brain cells) involved in the manufacture and transport of dopamine as compared to non-methamphetamine users.
In addition to brain damage, long-term methamphetamine users suffer from other health effects. Chronic users of methamphetamine can damage their heart, resulting in inflammation of the heart lining. Long-term methamphetamine users, especially those that inject the drug, are commonly seen with skin ulcers and skin infections. Also, by using needles to inject the drug, chronic methamphetamine abusers are at high risk of developing hepatitis B and C, along with HIV and AIDS.

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