Brain Damage in Heroin and Methadone Users

woman's hand holding heroin needle

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The postmortem examinations of 34 young people who unfortunately died at an early age have given researchers a rare glimpse into the damage that injection drug use can do to the brains of the users.

In a study published in Neuropathology and Applied Neurobiology, researchers examined the brains of 34 heroin and methadone users who died at an average age of 26 years. Some of them died at 17. They compared their brains to the brains of 16 young people who died young but were not drug users.

The examination found that drug abusers were up to three times more likely to have brain damage than those who do not use drugs. The young drug users' brains appeared similar to those of much older people and the damage comparable to someone with Alzheimer's disease.

Damaged Nerve Cells in Heroin and Methadone Users

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh studied the brains of the deceased intravenous drug abusers of heroin and methadone and compared them to the brains of young people who were not drug users.

The damaged nerve cells were in the areas of the brain involved in learning, memory, and emotional well-being, and were similar to damage found in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

"Our study shows evidence of an increased risk of brain damage associated with heroin and methadone use, which may be highest in the young when individuals are most likely to acquire the habit, " said co-author Jeanne Bell Professor of Neuropathology. "We found that the brains of these young drug abusers showed significantly higher levels of two key proteins associated with brain damage."

"In a previous study, we found out that drug abuse causes low-grade inflammation in the brain. Taken together, the two studies suggest that intravenous opiate abuse may be linked to premature aging of the brain," Bell said.

How Heroin and Methadone Cause Brain Damage and Death

The average age in these two groups in the study was only 26 years and included some drug abusers as young as 17.

"Tau protein, which in its soluble form is essential for communication and transport within brain cells, had become insoluble in some cells, causing nerve cell damage and death in selected areas of the brain," the authors reported. "Other nerve cells showed an accumulation of the amyloid precursor protein, which suggests that protein transport had been disrupted and the nerve cell functions affected."

"This study shows that drug abuse can lead to a build-up of proteins, which cause severe nerve cell damage and death in essential parts of the brain. This is very worrying as there are strong indications that drug use, in particular opiates like heroin and methadone, has continued to rise in recent years," says Professor Bell.

"The drug abusers we looked at in the study sadly died at a young age, but there are many others who don't realize the long-term effects that these drugs may be causing."

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