Liver could be key to mitigating brain damage from meth abuse

September 27, 2012 | Research, UToday
By Meghan Cunningham

The key to limiting long-term brain damage caused by methamphetamine abuse could rest in the liver, according to research under way at The University of Toledo.

Dr. Bryan Yamamoto inserted a brain sample into a high-pressure liquid chromatograph for the analysis of neurotransmitters and neurochemicals.

“We can’t look at the brain in isolation,” said Dr. Bryan Yamamoto, professor and chair of the UT Department of Neurosciences. “We know the impact alcohol abuse has on the liver, and there is evidence of comorbidity of people abusing both alcohol and methamphetamine. But this will be the first time research is focused first on how meth abuse itself affects the liver and then in turn the brain.”

The long-term brain damage from methamphetamine abuse is a result of too much of the amino acid glutamate and free radicals in the brain. It is Yamamoto’s theory that the excess glutamate is caused from the excess ammonia that cannot be metabolized by the liver.

If proven with his research, which was recently funded with a $1.55 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, then early medical intervention could mitigate the long-term effects on the brain, which include destroying dopamine nerve cells that damage cognitive abilities and limit the ability to move. Chronic abuse also leads to psychotic behavior and even death.

“If a person enters the emergency room high on methamphetamine, the physicians could initiate a pharmacological treatment to help eliminate the excess ammonia in the body before it has the opportunity to wreak havoc on the brain and the rest of the body,” said Yamamoto, who has been studying the impact of drugs such as methamphetamine and ecstasy on the brain for more than 20 years.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Drug Abuse Warning Network, emergency department visits of people on central nervous system stimulations, such as meth, increased 196 percent from 2004 to 2010 with more than 31,500 visits in 2010.

Meth abuse and manufacturing are increasing not only in the United States, but also around the world. They have even made their way into popular culture with the AMC television show “Breaking Bad” about a high school chemistry teacher who begins “cooking” the drug after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, to earn money to support his family.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1.2 million Americans age 12 and older in 2009 had abused methamphetamine at least once in the past year.

Methamphetamine’s popularity is increasing because of how easily and inexpensively it can be “cooked,” despite efforts to control the drugs and chemicals used to manufacture it, Yamamoto said. The drug is most commonly smoked or injected and causes a euphoric feeling when the brain releases the chemical dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls pleasure.

According to the United Nationals Office on Drugs and Crime World Drug Report 2009, North America accounts for most of the methamphetamine operations, with 82 percent of the number of meth labs seized in 2007, but manufacturing is a growing concern around the world with the most notable increases in east and southeast Asia, Europe and southern Africa.

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