What are the Long-Term Effects of Methamphetamine Abuse in the Brain?

Article Provided By Lauren N. Hardy, MA of Riverwoods Behavioral Health

Site Description: Riverwoods Behavioral Health is a leader in the treatment of drug and alcohol addictions, including methamphetamines. Our multidisciplinary team of committed healthcare professionals provide treatment that is tailored to each client we meet in a safe, supportive environment. We pride ourselves on offering the full spectrum of care that will meet – and exceed – the needs of each person we meet.

Methamphetamine, also known as “meth,” and “crystal,” is an extremely addictive drug which when abused leads to major damage to nearly every system of the body, most notably the brain. The potentially irreversible structural and functional injury to the brain includes major physical, cognitive, and psychological changes. To fully understand the ways meth abuse affects the brain, we must first understand the ways in which methamphetamines produce their effects. Meth greatly increases the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is involved in the experience of pleasure, reward, and motor function, leading to the intense rush associated with methamphetamines. Meth increases levels of dopamine in the brain to levels ten times higher than the levels of dopamine released by use of cocaine or alcohol [1].

Additionally, meth use causes a buildup of dopamine in the brain that lasts eight to twelve hours, eight to twelve times longer than cocaine, which leads to the longer sustained high associated with methamphetamines [1].

Long-term methamphetamine abuse leads to irreversible damage to the brain, leading to lasting impairment. Methamphetamine is so highly addictive, that the brain very quickly builds up a tolerance to the drug, which then sets up the cycle of meth abuse and dependence. When dependence occurs, the user needs methamphetamines to feel pleasure and avoid the “crash,” or withdrawal symptoms. Chronic meth use causes addiction, which stops the brain from naturally releasing dopamine and causes cravings for meth, loss of control over meth use, and continuing usage despite negative consequences. Long-term meth use causes involuntary facial and body movements including tics, repetitive movements, writhing, twitching, jerking, flailing, tremors, and convulsions.

Methamphetamine abuse causes long-term impairment of the brain in ways that affect cognition. Meth abuse is associated with longstanding cognitive impairment, which impedes the ability of a chronic user to learn new information and perform simple verbal tasks. Meth damages the frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for judgment, impulse control, and the ability to understand the consequences of actions, which may lead a meth abuser to engage in previously unfathomable activities. By changing the structure of the brain, methamphetamine damages both short-term and long-term memory, which can lead to a user having the inability to remember whole periods of time and struggle recalling day-to-day things.

Long-term meth abuse leads to a number of changes in the brain which can lead to chronic psychological problems that range from mild annoyance to life-altering health problems. When going through withdrawal or detox from meth, many users struggle with debilitating depression and anxiety as over time, methamphetamines damage systems in the brain responsible for regulating emotions and the ability and capacity to feel pleasure. The depression may be so severe for some meth addicts that suicide seems like the only way out. Methamphetamine abuse overstimulates the area of the brain responsible for emotional control – the amygdala – and affects the brain circuits needed to control impulsive behaviors. The inability of meth users to regulate their behaviors combined with the high-energy state characterized by paranoia and anxiety makes methamphetamine users more apt to exhibit violence (self or outwardly directed) and aggression. Additionally, as methamphetamine disrupts the inhibitory mechanism of the brain, chronic meth users may become obsessed with a single thing for many hours or engage in repetitive behaviors while high. Even within the first few months of abuse, some meth users succumb to paranoia, a type of delusional disorder that leads to irrational behaviors, hypervigilance, and the feeling of being in constant danger. With chronic usage, meth abusers may experience a break from reality, or psychosis, in which the person experiences visual, tactile, auditory, or visual hallucinations and delusions. He or she feels things such as “meth bugs” crawling on his or her skin or hear voices that are not actually present. Often, chronic meth users suffer from delusions of persecution, operating under the delusion that they are being watched by others or that others are out to get them.

Most meth users begin to use the drug as an experiment without the idea that they may one day become an addict. They may use without considering that the long-term effects of methamphetamine abuse impact virtually every area of their life, leading to unforeseen consequences. There is no doubt that methamphetamines can lead to serious health complications, including damage to nearly every organ system in the body. The brain, specifically, undergoes a variety of structural, molecular, and functional changes that can impact a meth user’s cognitive, physical, and mental functioning. While some of these changes will dissipate after a year of sobriety, some will persist indefinitely [2].

About the Author: “What are the Long-Term Effects of Methamphetamine Abuse in the Brain?” was contributed by Riverwoods Behavioral Health clinical member Lauren Hardy, M.A. With several years of experience in the treatment field as a research analyst at Vanderbilt University, and with a masters in counseling psychology, Lauren provides a professional insight into addiction and the ways in which methamphetamine can damage every aspect of an addict’s life.


[1]: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/meth/body/methbrainnoflash.html
[2]: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/methamphetamine


Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on December 28, 2018
Published on AddictionHope.com, Resources for Drug Abuse Treatment