In recent years amphetamine, particularly METH (methamphetamine), has received considerable, negative media attention. You may read about police raiding a secret METH lab in your local newspaper, hear that METH is stealing our youth in a news report, or see anti-drug commercials portraying the dark and destructive forces of METH abuse. What you are unlikely to see are reports highlighting the benefits of METH. Yes, I used the words benefit and METH in the same sentence. While METH is relentlessly demonized in main stream media as the the devil’s drug, a less satanic perspective has been taken up by many neuroscientists.
METH is a potent stimulant that is best known to increase mood and boost energy. As it turns out, neuroscientists have been using METH for decades –no, not as a way to stay awake during those long and boring scientific lectures, but as a powerful tool to better understand brain function and dysfunction. METH increases brain function, improves attention, enhances mood, reduces appetite and fatigue, and alters motor coordination. However at higher doses, like those taken by METH addicts, METH can produce anxiety, paranoia, heart problems, disrupted thought processes, brain damage, and even death. Because of this diverse and wide range of effects, researchers are using the drug to gain a better understanding of how the brain works and what happens when it doesn’t work so well.
For example, to understand the relationship between brain function and learning, researchers administer various doses of the drug to human or animal subjects. Interestingly, METH is able to enhance or impair cognitive processes like learning and memory, depending on the amount ingested. High doses of METH disrupt normal brain function and lead to forgetfulness and confusion, while more moderate doses actually enhance people’s performance across a range of tasks. The paradoxical effects METH has on learning and memory have to do with neurochemicals targeted by METH (e.g., dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine). Each of these neurochemicals contributes to our ability to learn and remember information. At lower doses, METH increases these neurochemicals in the brain, which is thought to increase attention, learning, and memory. On the other hand, METH abuse actually damages the neurons that make and release these neurochemicals.
Because of the damaging effects, METH has also been used as a tool for understanding movement disorders like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. The death of dopamine neurons as we age contributes to poor initiation/coordination of movements. In the advanced stages of these diseases, some patients lose the ability to walk and also develop dementia. METH jumpstarts dopamine activity in the brain and, if administered appropriately, produces similar effects on brain activity as medications currently used to treat these disorders, like l-DOPA. Understanding how METH interacts with neurochemicals important to cognition and movement will inevitably put researchers in a better position to develop medications to treat or even cure these diseases.
Millions of people worldwide are suffering from psychiatric disorders that disrupt their ability to think, feel, and move. With the help of METH, neuroscientists may one day be able to save these individuals and their families from the despair and devastation that stems from disorders like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, ADHD, depression, and even schizophrenia. Believe it or not, METH is already a FDA-approved medication for ADHD treatment under the trade name Desoxyn®. Nonetheless, we mustn’t forget that millions of people abuse METH each year, and that addiction shatters lives. Therefore, we should be cautious about how and when the drug is used. However, the addictive properties of the drug should not open the flood gates for propaganda, scare tactics and outright public denouncement. These approaches threaten drug research, leading to condemnation of objective research efforts before the beneficial and medicinal properties of drugs are ever revealed. There are numerous drugs that, because of propaganda and scare tactics, have endured similar tragedies as METH (e.g., LSD, ecstasy, psychedelics, opiates, marijuana, etc). A more informed open dialogue about METH’s diverse properties, both beneficial and destructive, is the ideal way to get the word out on drugs like METH and open the possibility of positive interventions for those suffering from debilitating illnesses.
Cruickshank, C., & Dyer, K. (2009). A review of the clinical pharmacology of methamphetamine Addiction, 104 (7), 1085-1099 DOI: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2009.02564.x
Hart, C., Gunderson, E., Perez, A., Kirkpatrick, M., Thurmond, A., Comer, S., & Foltin, R. (2007). Acute Physiological and Behavioral Effects of Intranasal Methamphetamine in Humans Neuropsychopharmacology, 33 (8), 1847-1855 DOI: 10.1038/sj.npp.1301578