On Meth Addiction and the Brain, Behavior and Recovery

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.

Methamphetamine or “meth” is one of the most widely abused substances and its use is rapidly growing. Abuse of meth is not just an urban problem. Meth factories have increasingly brought violence to rural America. Yet awareness of the high and growing incidence of meth use has been slow to register. Its effects touch nearly everyone indirectly, and its costs in terms of dollars, crime, and quality of life are enormous. In addition, its unique mechanisms of attraction and addiction make it one of the most difficult addictions to treat. Psychologically and physiologically, meth grabs hold of the body and mind quickly, and addiction quickly develops.

In recognition of the growing problem of meth abuse, the last few years have seen an explosion of research. We now understand that treating meth addiction requires a specialized approach: generic 12-step models are less likely to be effective. The good news is that meth addiction, despite its power, can be effectively treated.

  • About 25 million people use meth or other amphetamines worldwide, more than the total number of cocaine and heroin users combined.
  • It is estimated that 3% of students in the US have experimented with meth by the time they finish high school.
  • The meth rush is over 3 times stronger than cocaine and lasts 4 to 5 times as long.
  • From mid-2005 to the beginning of 2009, meth-related arrests in the United States grew by 85%.
  • Meth both reduces the brain’s dopamine supply and impairs the brain’s ability to use dopamine, creating an intense need for repeated highs.
  • Meth-induced psychosis is marked by visual and auditory hallucinations, fear and paranoia, and flashback effects that can occur even after recovery.
  • Meth treatment is not a “one size fits all” proposition. Special-needs populations such as gay and bisexual men, women who have suffered from trauma and abuse, or individuals with co-occurring mental health disorders may need specialized treatment that addresses their specific issues and concerns.
  • Following the “honeymoon”, approximately 4-6 weeks after withdrawal and treatment, meth users typically hit the wall, a period of hopelessness and anhedonia.
  • Recovered meth users who relapse typically exhibit several warning signs leading up to relapse.

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