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Tuesday, 28 March, 2000, 02:46 GMT
Amphetamine brain damage measured

Amphetamines are associated with the club scene
The brain damage caused by amphetamine use is still noticeable years later, say experts.

In fact, users undergo similar brain chemical changes to patients suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, stroke or brain tumours.

Methamphetamine, also known as "speed" is a stimulant which acts on the central nervous system and quickens the heartbeat.

Users report increased confidence, sociability and energy levels. The effects usually last for several hours with the user feeling particularly hyperactive, and very awake.

However, there can also be feelings of nervousness or irritability and depression as the effects of the drug wear off.

Neuron damage

But there is significant evidence that the drug can cause damage to the brain's neurons - the cells which are used for thinking.

Methamphetamine users have reduced concentrations of a chemical called N-acetyl-aspartate, which is a byproduct of the way neurons work.

Research carried out in Torrance, California, and reported in the journal "Neurology", compared the brains of 26 previous methamphetamine users with 24 non-users.

They found at least 5% lower concentrations of N-acetyl-aspartate in two key areas of the brain, the basal ganglia and frontal white matter.

Dr Thomas Ernst, who led the project, said: "Many brain diseases associated with brain cell or neuronal damage or loss, such as Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, brain tumours, stroke and HIV brain diseases, consistently have shown decreased N-acetyl-aspartate.

"This, in the drug users' brains, suggests neuronal loss or damage as a result of long-term methamphetamine use."

Amphetamines work by releasing large quantities of the brain stimulating chemical dopamine.

Animal studies have shown brain abnormalities persisting four years after amphetamine use stops.

Groups such as the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence say that amphetamine use is actually falling, despite its association with the club scene.

Amphetamine users can become dependant on the drug, and withdrawal symptoms can cause depression and lethargy.

Heavy, regular use can cause hallucinations, delusions and feelings of paranoia.

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