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Addiction to meth centers in brain

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LAKE COUNTY — It’s not like trying a beer.

“Methamphetamine changes brain chemistry,” said Dr. Paul Gochis of St. Luke Community Healthcare.

Methamphetamine abuse is a problem, according to health professionals, law enforcement, and county attorneys in Lake County, and in an effort to understand the problem, it’s important to know how the stimulant affects people.

A user can get meth into their blood stream in several ways. The digestive system absorbs it if it’s swallowed. Snorted substances get into the blood through mucous membranes in the nose. If it’s smoked, it gets into the lung tissue, or it can be injected directly into the bloodstream.

Once it gets into the blood, it travels to different organs, including the brain. The route the drug takes through the brain is complicated but Dr. Gochis simplified it. After meth gets into the brain, signals in the neurons (nerve cells) are sent to release a pleasure hormone called dopamine.

The brain naturally releases small amounts of dopamine when you do things like hug someone, eat something that tastes good or win at something like a game. Normal activities like that hug would rate at about a two on a dopamine scale, but meth surges to the top and ranks somewhere around 30 or higher.

“It causes an incredible high,” he said of the first time someone tries meth. “You can’t get that rush with normal things.”

Dr. Gochis explained that the difference between a dopamine rush from normal activity and meth is like a whisper and shout.

“Our brains were only designed to have whispers,” he said.

The explosion of pleasure from meth damages the dopamine pathway, which then makes it difficult for the user to feel pleasure. It’s even difficult for the user to feel that initial high.

“Once the damage is done, it’s tough not to use,” he said. People can experience an intense drive to seek more just to feel normal with a damaged dopamine receptor. That hug that once created a sense of joy feels flat.

“It’s like the worst depression,” he said explaining that people sometimes do anything not to feel bad.

Research around meth and the changes it causes in brain structure have many healthcare providers classifying the problem as a disease.

“Most medical experts say it’s a disease and not a moral choice,” Dr. Gochis said. “Many people are inherently good, but they have this disease and are prone to addiction and the behaviors that come with it.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse also classifies addiction as a disease that is defined by chronic, relapsing behavior despite harmful consequences.

“When addiction takes over, a person’s ability to exert selfcontrol can become seriously impaired,” according to an NIDA document. “Brainimaging studies from people addicted to drugs show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical for judgment, decision making, learning, memory, and behavior control.

“Scientists believe that these changes alter the way the brain works and may help explain the compulsive and destructive behaviors of an addicted person.”

Lake County Deputy Attorney James Lapotka says the drug problem isn’t slowing down.

“We can’t punish addiction out of people,” he said. “It’s a mental illness and we can’t prosecute people out of it. We need to focus on treatment.”

Many other drugs have similar effects on the pleasure center of the brain, but meth is cheap and easy to get, he said. The problem is made worse by the chemicals used to make meth.

The National Meth Project says that meth is usually made with several key ingredients including sulfuric acid, which can also be used to clean toilets; hydrochloric acid, used to make plastic; toluene, an ingredient in brake fluid; phosphorus, the stuff in matches; lithium, as in batteries, and the list goes on.

Dr. Gochis said that the toxic nature of the ingredients in meth makes it one of the worst drugs people can ingest.

“Imagine what that would do to your brain,” he said. Editor’s note:

This is the first story in a series on methamphetamine addiction and its destructive effects on Lake County communities.   

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