By AMANDA BLAKER | SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
Published on October 10th, 2016
Have you ever seen “before and after” photos of meth users? If so, you know how much using the drug can change the human body.
People addicted to methamphetamine often have sunken cheeks and visible weight loss, as well as sores and scabs on their faces from picking at their skin. But have you thought about how the drug affects the inside of their body?
Amanda Blaker is a doctoral student in the neurosciences and neurological disorders track at the University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences
Meth is classified as a psychostimulant, which means that it acts as an antidepressant or mood-elevator. This drug gives you a sudden burst of intense happiness, increased self-confidence and energy, while increasing your heart rate and body movements.
Alcohol also can affect your behavior and your brain, but unlike meth, it is classified as a depressant. Consuming large amounts of alcohol slows down your brain function, which can result in slurred speech, lack of motor coordination, or blackouts.
A recent study found that within the United States alone, about 1.2 million people reported using meth in the last year but importantly, 77 percent of meth abusers also binge drink alcohol. In fact, consuming alcohol first can increase the risk of using meth more than fourfold. This is considered “co-abuse” when two drugs are used at the same time.
The goal of our research at the University of Toledo is to determine what happens to the brain after the co-abuse of alcohol and meth, and identify the mechanisms responsible for those effects.
The co-abuse of alcohol and meth can add to effects common to both drugs, such as increases in heart rate and blood pressure.
Therefore this combination can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as behavioral changes such as paranoia, hallucinations, and aggression.
Our lab looked specifically at the effect on the brain, and we discovered that in combination alcohol and meth damage two specific types of brain cells — dopamine and serotonin neurons — within a brain region known as the striatum.
Damage to these cells in this part of the brain can lead to multiple problems, such as movement disorders, clinical depression, and an overall decrease in brain function.
Co-abuse of alcohol and meth destroys more of these brain cells compared to groups exposed to either alcohol or meth alone.
However, an additional, more ominous picture emerges when the drugs are used in combination.
We found that their combined use results in a new type of brain damage that is different from when either drug is abused on its own, or simply the combined effects of one drug added to the other. This would be like saying, 2+2 does not equal 4, but rather it equals 7.
Something different, and far more dangerous, is occurring.
When the drugs are taken in combination, the molecules responsible for inflammation now come into play. We have observed that in instances of co-abuse these inflammatory molecules are triggered to enter the brain, contributing to brain damage after the combined use of alcohol and meth.
To test how large the role of inflammation is in contributing to brain damage, we measured the counter-effects of a drug similar to ibuprofen. We confirmed that not only was inflammation blocked under that circumstance, but brain damage also was lessened after co-abuse of alcohol and meth.
The results of our experiments are significant because this is the first report of enhanced brain damage after co-abuse of alcohol and meth compared to either drug alone.
Additionally, we have identified a role for an inflammation response outside of the brain that may contribute to increased brain damage after co-substance abuse. This will potentially identify new targets for therapy to help people addicted to alcohol and meth individually, as well as those who co-abuse more than one drug.
Amanda Blaker is a doctoral student in the neurosciences and neurological disorders track at the University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences biomedical sciences program. Ms. Blaker is doing her research in the laboratory of Bryan Yamamoto, who recently relocated to the pharmacology & toxicology department at Indiana University School of Medicine. For more information, contact Amanda.Blaker@rockets.utoledo.edu or visit utoledo.edu/med/grad/biomedical.