Brain Recovery After Stopping Methamphetamine

Abstinence May Restore Some Functions but Not Others

What to Expect After Stopping

Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee  

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There is no doubt that methamphetamine ("meth") can cause progressive and sometimes profound damage to the brain. The question is whether the damage is reversible once a person stops.

Unfortunately, the answer is rarely simple. While it is possible that some of the damage will begin to reverse when a user stops, there are other types of damage that may be harder to turn back. What we do know, however, is that any restoration of brain function is only possible after a sustained period of complete abstinence.

Types of Brain Damage

Heavy or long-term methamphetamine use damages the brain both functionally and structurally.

Because the brain becomes accustomed to the drug during the addiction, the altered biochemical activity may take time to normalize once the drug is stopped. But, in most cases, it will, and certain dysfunction in the neurons in the brain will eventually right itself.

From a brain structure standpoint, reversal may not be so easy. Ultimately, meth causes damage to brain cells, and the ability to reverse this damage is largely dependant on where the injury occurred. If it is in an area where other brain cells can compensate, then an improvement in symptoms is likely. If, on the other, it occurs where cells are more specialized and have fewer redundancies, then repair can be difficult, if not impossible.

There are three ways in which long-term meth use can damage the brain:

  • Causing acute neurotransmitter changes
  • Rewiring the brain's reward system
  • Causing brain cell death

Acute Neurotransmitter Changes

Long-term meth exposure directly alters the brain's cellular transporters and receptors (the systems responsible for delivering messages throughout the brain). Because these transporters and receptors are involved in regulating a person's moods, chronic impairment can lead to symptoms of irritability, apathy, rage, depression, insomnia, and anxiety.

Rewiring the Brain's Reward System

Methamphetamine addiction also damages the brain's so-called pleasure (or reward) center. These are regions of the brain that include the ventral tegmental area, nucleus accumbens, and frontal lobe. Once changes in these brain regions have occurred, they are usually permanent.

Changes to the brain's reward center are largely responsible for the drug cravings a person can experience upon quitting.

Brain Cell Death

Heavy meth use is known to cause cell death in parts of the brain associated with self-control, including the frontal lobe, caudate nucleus, and hippocampus. Damage in this area can manifest with a variety of psychiatric symptoms.

Unfortunately, these are the types of cells are not considered redundant. Their function cannot be compensated by other brain cells, and any damage caused to them can potentially lead to long-lasting changes.

Likelihood of Reversal

In recent years, scientific studies have aimed to evaluate the effect of long-term abstinence on brain activity in former methamphetamine users.

A 2010 review of studies conducted by the Department of Psychology and Center for Substance Abuse Research at Temple University looked at the restoration of brain function after cessation of different recreational drugs, including cannabis, MDMA, and methamphetamine.

With methamphetamine, former users who had been abstinent for six months scored lower on motor skills, verbal skills, and psychological tasks compared to a matched set of people who had never used. After 12 and 17 months, however, their ability to perform many of the tasks improved with motor and verbal skills equal to that of the non-users.

The one area where they lagged behind was with psychological tasks, where former users were more likely to exhibit depression, apathy, or aggression.

What to Expect After Quitting

The ability to restore normal brain function after quitting meth can vary from person to person. It is largely related to how long you used the drug, how regularly you used it, and how much you used.

With that being said, a former user can expect an improvement in the following functions and/or symptoms within six to 12 months of stopping:

  • Restoration of neurotransmitter activity in parts of the brain regulating personality
  • Normalization of brain receptors and transporters
  • Improvement in depression and anxiety
  • Stabilization of mood swings
  • Improvement in focus and attention
  • Fewer nightmares
  • Reduction in jitteriness and emotional rages

The one thing that may not readily improve is the drug cravings a person can experience even after years of abstinence. It is a problem commonly caused by damage to the brain's reward system.

To deal with these cravings, a former user should commit to an extensive rehabilitation program where a person learns to exercise self-control, potentially building new pathways in the brain.

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