Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dopamine, Methamphetamine and You

This is another guest blog by Lori Pate explaining how meth affects the brain, and why it's so addictive.

Thank you, again, Lori.

First things first -- What does dopamine do anyway?
1) Dopamine is critical to the way the brain controls our movements. Not enough dopamine -- can't move, or control our movements well. Too much dopamine? Uncontrollable/subconscious movements (like picking, tapping, repetitive moments, jerking, twitching). Remember that the heart is a muscle, too, and too much dopamine will result in increased pulse and blood pressure.

2) Dopamine controls the flow of information from other areas of the brain, especially memory, attention and problem-solving tasks. This becomes important when we talk about amphetamine-induced psychosis that is common in meth abusers.

3) When dopamine is released it provides feelings of enjoyment and reinforcement to motivate us to do, or continue doing, certain activities. Dopamine is released by naturally rewarding experiences such as food and sex. This pre-programmed reward system makes sure that people do eat, do desire to procreate, and basically survive. Without enough dopamine, people feel the opposite of enjoyment and motivation -- they feel fatigued and depressed, and experience a lack of drive and motivation.

How do brain chemicals like Dopamine work?
Brain chemicals, including Dopamine, are stored in cells, which you can think of like barrels full of that chemical. When something occurs like a good meal or great sex the brain pours out some dopamine from the dopamine barrels into an open space in the brain called a synapse. It floats around there. Think of the synapse like a street, and dopamine is like little cars driving around aimlessly on the street.

Across the street (not far) from the barrels of dopamine are Dopamine receptors. These receptors have little parking spaces on them that only fit Dopamine (or a substance VERY similar in chemical shape to Dopamine) into them, like a lock and key. As the Dopamine floats around in the synapse, it finds parking spaces at Dopamine receptors, and "plugs in" to the receptors. THIS is the point where we feel good, when the Dopamine is parked in a receptor's parking space. There are, however, a limited number of receptors with "Dopamine only parking" available, and each receptor has a limited number of parking spaces. So some of the dopamine may not be able to find a place to park.

When all the parking spaces are taken, the remaining dopamine that didn't find a place to park is normally recycled. There are "reuptake molecules" that do this -- think of them like tow trucks. They find the extra dopamine, and tow it back to the barrels of Dopamine so that it can be re-used the next time. After some time has passed, the receptors release the Dopamine that was parked in their parking spaces, and the tow trucks take those Dopamine molecules back to the barrel too.

The brain has a safety-check system that will destroy any excess Dopamine that isn't in a parking space, and didn't get picked up by the tow truck. There are special chemicals in our brains that will break down this extra dopamine. Think of this like the toxic waste crew coming in and sweeping up the street.

As a last resort, after repeated long-term over-stimulation, the brain will shut down Dopamine receptors so that nothing can park there ever again. Think of this like the demolition team coming in and permanently barricading off the driveways.

This is your brain on Meth!
So now that we have a basic understanding of how things work normally, I'll try to explain how things work when meth is ingested.

When someone eats, snorts, injects, or otherwise gets meth into their system, meth stimulates those barrels of Dopamine to pour out Dopamine. Meth continues to tell the cells to pour out dopamine until the body can break down the meth, which is typically 12 hours or so.

So Dopamine is poured out into the synapse (street) and finds parking spaces at dopamine receptors and makes the user feel high.

But meth is a tricky little chemical. It is shaped closely enough to Dopamine that the tow trucks get confused, and pick up meth thinking that it is dopamine. So the tow trucks are busy driving around hijacked by meth molecules leaving the extra Dopamine molecules floating around in the street (synapse). Well... that means the toxic waste crew comes in and destroys that dopamine that did not get recycled. So for the 12 hours or so it takes for the body to break down the meth, it is also spending that time destroying dopamine.

As long as the user keeps ingesting more meth, this process continues until there is not enough dopamine left to feel high from. When the user finally stops using, and the brain breaks down the meth molecules, the recycle trucks try to salvage what dopamine there is left, while the user crashes.

The end result of a "run" or "binge" on meth is a marked decrease in the amount of dopamine left in the brain. This leaves the user feeling exhausted, hungry, depressed, possibly suicidal and definitely unmotivated. They are literally suffering from a brain chemical imbalance. Self-inflicted mental illness.

How can the brain ever be normal again?
Well, luckily, the human body is pretty resilient. We do have the ability to make replacement dopamine. However, the body was not designed to need to do this in large quantities or in quick supplies. So we don't have a mass-production plant making dopamine. It's a 3 to 4 step process, too.

The process: Phenylalanine --> Tyrosine -->L-dopa --> Dopamine

Phenylalanine is the first "pre-cursor". It can be found in the following foods: soybean protein, frozen tofu, dried and salted cod, shellfish, lean meat, organ meat, skin-free chicken, cheese, milk, eggs, many seeds (watermelon, fenugreek, roasted soybean nuts), and chocolate. Equal artificial sweetener also contains Phenylalanine. The body can turn Phenylalanine into Tyrosine.

Tyrosine can also be found in food. This would eliminate the need for the body to synthesize it from Phenylalanine. One step closer to dopamine! Meat, dairy, eggs as well as almonds, avocados and bananas are good sources of Tyrosine.

From there, the body will convert Tyrosine into L-Dopa, and then on to Dopamine (and other neurotransmitters like norepinephrine).

So... to replace dopamine destroyed while high on meth, the recovering user must eat sources of Phenylalanine or Tyrosine.

To aid the body in making Dopamine, the person can use what dopamine they DO have left as often as possible. This tells the body that they need more of it. While you sleep, you use very little dopamine. Exercising, even just a walk around the block will use dopamine (remember, it controls movement). So setting a reasonable sleep schedule, and trying to get some exercise will help speed up recovery from Self-inflicted Dopamine Destruction (aka meth addiction)!

Be patient -- remember, we weren't designed to waste dopamine, we were supposed to be recycling it. The process of replenishing dopamine takes months. Studies show that recovering meth addicts who have abstained from meth use have about 80% of normal dopamine levels after 18 months of abstinence. This WILL be a long battle. It CAN be won.

What about the receptors that were destroyed?
Well, good news again. Even though those receptors can never heal or recover, the brain is able to use existing receptors and find new pathways to accomplish the same results. Some receptors will even get a home equity loan and build on extra parking spaces!

Are there any medicines that can help?
A doctor should always be consulted and included on any medication treatment for a recovering user. Many recovering addicts have found Wellbutrin (Bupropion) to be helpful after a few months of clean time. What Wellbutrin does is block some (not all) of the tow trucks for a little while so that the dopamine the person has left can be more effective. It does not, however, stimulate the barrels to pour out dopamine. The person has to have enough dopamine in their brain before Wellbutrin can help.

Health stores do carry supplements of Phenylalanine and Tyrosine. A recovering addict who finds it difficult to eat enough protein may benefit from a supplement. Again -- consult your doctor first.

Lori Pate
B.A Psychology
University of Texas at Austin
Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor and this page was not intended to provide medical advice.


  1. Very, very interesting. So re the limited number of dopamine receptors - does this mean that there is a maximum threshold for feeling high? Once all those receptors have domapine, that is the highest high you can possibly have?

  2. Basically, yes. That's when the high is no longer even the goal. The goal becomes staying high to avoid the crash, because when that happens, the addict is left with nothing. It can take years to feel pleasure for anything again. Nothing the addict previously enjoyed brings any kind of pleasure. It took me a little over a year before I could enjoy movies, music, books...anything.

  3. wow the way you wrote this clearly states important ideas through very creative imagry thanks for sharing

  4. Thanks, this helped me to talk to some of my friends about this, and why, even if they are going to do it, which I don't advise, they will be slightly more educated, and hopefully not as dumb. (Though personally I think even starting to do it isn't the best of decisions, hopefully I'll be able to help them out, or convince them not to do it in the first place.)

  5. So glad to hear it! I was lucky enough to have found Lori, who wrote the article. It's the best and most clear information I've ever come across about how the brain is affected. She deserves all the credit.

  6. Hi Kim,

    I take the amino acid Tyrosine twice daily. I have ADHD, which is probably caused by either a genetic dopamine deficiency, problem with the receptors, or a problem with how the brain uses dopamine. ADHD (especially combined with depression) is a serious risk factor for drug addiction; I'm lucky I stayed with pot, which was fairly easy to quit once I got proper treatment for the real problems. Not that I recommend becoming a pot-head, mind you. I wish I could go back and explain to my teenage self the REAL reasons why using drugs is a bad idea.

  7. You and me both. :) Thanks so much for your comment. Even though the vast majority of people who interact with me here are anonymous (understandably) it means so much to me to know I'm not alone.