What do suffering a traumatic brain injury and using club drugs have in common? Researchers say both may trigger a similar chemical chain reaction in the brain, leading to cell death, memory loss and potentially irreversible brain damage.
A series of studies at the University of Florida (UF) over the past five years has shown using the popular club drug Ecstasy, also called MDMA, and other forms of methamphetamine (such as tik or crystal meth) lead to the same type of brain changes, cell loss and protein fluctuations in the brain that occur after a person endures a sharp blow to the head.
This according to findings a UF researcher presented at a Society for Neuroscience conference held in San Diego this month.
“Using methamphetamine is like inflicting a traumatic brain injury on yourself, “said Firas Kobeissy, a postdoctoral associate in the College of Medicine department of psychiatry. “We found that a lot of brain cells are being injured by these drugs. That’s alarming to society now. People don’t seem to take club drugs as seriously as drugs such as heroin or cocaine.”
The scientists compared what happened in the brains of rats given large doses of methamphetamine with what happened to those that had suffered a traumatic brain injury.
In the brain, club drugs set off a chain of events that injures brain cells. The drugs seem to damage certain proteins in the brain, which causes protein levels to fluctuate. When proteins are damaged, brain cells could die. In addition, as some proteins change under the influence of methamphetamine, they also begin to cause inflammation in the brain, which can be deadly, Kobeissy said.
Looking specifically at proteins in the rat cortex, UF researchers discovered that about 12 percent of the proteins in this region of the brain showed the same kinds of changes after either methamphetamine use or traumatic brain injury
“Sometimes people go to the clubs and take three tablets of Ecstasy or speed,” Kobeissy said. “That may be a toxic dose for them. Toxic effects can be seen for methamphetamine, Ecstasy and traumatic injury in different areas of the brain.”
“People often think the effects of drugs of abuse wear off in the body the same way common medications do, but that may not be the case,” said Mark Gold, chief of the division of addiction medicine at UF’s McKnight Brain Institute.
“These data and the previous four years of data suggest some drugs, especially methamphetamine, cause changes that are not readily reversible,” Gold said. “Future research is necessary for us to determine when or if methamphetamine-related brain changes reverse themselves.”
The researchers are planning studies to uncover all the various ways drugs damage and kill brain cells as well as to find out if stem cells can be applied to repair drug-related brain damage.