Faces of Meth: Why Addicts Age Faster

An online gallery called “Faces of Meth” is a collection of police-booking photos that show how addicts progressively and drastically age. In a few short years over multiple arrest pictures, the meth users’ hair recedes, their cheeks sink and their eyes bulge. Their teeth and gums rot, and their skin is pocketed with sores and scabs from common hallucinations that bugs are crawling under their skin. Now, science has a clue about why this transformation happens.

A new study has found that in lab rats, the highly addictive methamphetamine (“meth”) triggers accelerated production of fats called ceramides that regulate cell aging and death. What’s more, the researchers from the University of California at Irvine and the Italian Institute of Technology were able to chemically block production of the ceramides, halting the accelerated cell aging, often reversing the damage.

No Medical Help for Meth Withdrawal Yet

Because there’s no medication to ease withdrawals from the powerful stimulant meth, those who become addicted find it very difficult to quit using. The high is short-term, but the damage — from staying up for days and not eating to longer-lasting internal damage — adds to their inability to resist the urge to use, the researchers said.

“The person has only behavioral therapy with a counselor to fight the addiction,” said Daniele Piomelli, PhD, professor of anatomy and neurobiology at UC Irvine School of Medicine. “That’s effective in many, but not most cases. It’s important to know that meth addicts who die early, in their 20s and 30s, aren’t just dying of overdose. They are pathologically going through changes that bring on the conditions of old age, such as heart and liver disease, blockage of the arteries, and lung fibrosis.”

In Kyoon Lyoo, MD, PhD, of Ewha W. University Seoul, South Korea, whose recent research with the University of Utah determined that adolescent meth users suffer considerably more brain damage than adults, found the UCI/Italian study revealing. “The findings are important in explaining the systemic effects of methamphetamine,” Dr. Lyoo said.

About Meth

Meth, also called “crank,” is a powerfully addictive stimulant. It swiftly cripples the user with dependency on meth-triggered high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported in September 2013 that meth alters the brain’s wiring by destroying the dopamine receptors. Even in low doses, meth can send users into days of sleeplessness and lack of food or water.

Despite all the news about an opioid and heroin epidemic, meth is the fourth-most-mentioned illicit drug in U.S. hospital emergency rooms, closely behind heroin (cocaine was first and marijuana second). In some western states, meth tops opioids in ER visits, and it’s the first most-mentioned drug in the ERs of San Diego and Hawaii, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Community Epidemiology Work Group. Meth is the number one street drug in parts of Asia, researchers there report, so its menace hasn’t gone away.

The latest meth findings were made by a chance discovery. Originally, the focus of the research was to look for biomarkers that would explain why the toxicity and physical damage from meth far outlasts the duration of the high — sometimes by days or weeks. Instead, Dr. Piomelli said, the research team found the furious creation of ceramides.

“Using rats that were self-administering methamphetamine, we discovered the massive production throughout body of lipid, fat-like molecules called ceramides,” Piomelli said. The rats that were ingesting meth quickly started looking ragged and feeble.

A Window Into Meth and Aging

“We were intrigued because we suspected that the ceramides had something to do with the aging with meth users,” Piomelli said. First they had to learn how meth triggered the creation of ceramides and how they aged the rats. Then the scientists gave the rats the meth with a chemical called L-cycloserine, which blocked the production of ceramides.

“Despite the animals taking the drug, they started gaining back weight and had improvements in all symptoms of accelerated aging,” Piomelli said in an interview. “Certain inflammatory molecules that are associated with aging were lowered. We brought these animals back to normal despite the fact that they were still taking meth. In many cases, the damage was reversed.”

The obvious value: Meth addicts are so deteriorated that they can’t withstand their ravenous hunger for the drug, Piomelli said. If the cell aging was reversed and the users’ health and stamina restored, they might have a better chance of abstinence.

Other potential results, which need further research and testing in humans, is that halting cell aging might have implications for diseases beyond addiction, namely those that often come with older age, Piomelli said. “Naturally there’s interest in this process for humans to potentially turn back the clock on aging.”

What’s next? Determining if meth accelerates the normal aging process or if it triggers something entirely different than how we age, say “a new system,” Piomelli said. “If we could slow down ceramide, we could slow aging.”

There is still hope.

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