Recent studies indicate that many of the damaging effects produced by illegal drugs is caused by excitotoxicity within specific brain circuits. Most teenagers and adults using these drugs think that the only harmful effect is the risk of being punished by the law. Unfortunately, it's more serious than that.
For example, cocaine and methamphetamine stimulate the release of excess glutamate in the same part of the brain responsible for Parkinson's and Huntington's disease. Both drugs are also capable of producing serious long-term injury to the brain. After repeated use, millions of brain cells and synaptic connections are destroyed.
Because of the tremendous overlap and excessive number of synaptic connections at this age, the obvious effects of neurological damage in most young people will be minimal. But, because these drugs dramatically increase free-radical production in the brain, neurons and synaptic connections begin to die off in greater and greater numbers, essentially aging the brain at a greatly accelerated rate.
Recall that accumulated attrition of brain cells and their connections accounts for brain aging and degenerative diseases. What this means for chronic users of powerful drugs is an elevated risk for developing Parkinson's or Alzheimer's at forty or even thirty, rather than sixty. Not surprisingly, this is exactly what we are seeing today. The age at which people are developing degenerative diseases of the brain has been sliding steadily toward a younger age group. Also, there has been a dramatic rise in the total incidence of these brain diseases over the last several decades.
When you consider that this is also the age group that consumes the highest amount of excitotoxic foods, you can see we have a real predicament on our hands. Our biggest problem in the future may be where to put all these brain-injured people. At one time our mental institutions were filled to overflowing with cases of neurosyphilis. Tomorrow, it could be victims of the drug culture.
Let's say a teenager smokes some marijuana and has a few hits of crack at a party (not at all unusual these days, unfortunately), then dances for hours to the point of sheer exhaustion. By this time, his body core temperature is extremely high, his blood-brain barrier resembles a sieve (which means any glutamate in his blood will pass directly into his brain), and all of his tissues are being assaulted by wave after wave of free radicals secondary to a massive increase in metabolism brought on by exertion. In this weakened physical state, any further assault (taking more drugs, getting hurt in a fight, falling and hitting his head) will cause damage to his body tissues and brain far worse than in a sober, rested state.
While this scenario may seem unrealistic and apocalyptic, the truth is that for growing numbers of this country's youth, this kind of behavior has become a lifestyle, not just an isolated incident from which their bodies can recover with rest and good diet. Many young people repeat this damaging cycle every week, sometimes several times a week, and let's not forget that a lot of teenagers practically subsist on junk food—meaning their level of antioxidant protection is virtually nonexistent, even before engaging in other unhealthy behaviors such as taking illicit drugs.
Parents often convince themselves their child is going through a phase and will eventually outgrow the strange behavior. Despite the recurring signs of drug abuse (slurred speech, difficulty paying attention or completing sentences in some of the worst cases) and the fact that their child may suffer serious, permanent brain damage, many parents don't even consider the possibility that drugs could be involved.
Unfortunately, many kids are also doing multiple drugs, and we simply don't know how these substances interact chemically within the body. Further, there have been no careful evaluations of how particular drugs are actually being used by our youth; that is, most studies look at the effects of one drug at a time. Still, some good work has been done recently on the effects of a single drug.
For example, a recent study of the effect of the drug ecstasy, in which regular users were followed for one year, found significant impairment of participants' ability to think. What makes the study results very interesting is that, to eliminate the immediate effect of the drug itself, participants were not allowed to use the drug for two weeks prior to each test that was performed during the study period. In other words, this designer drug was producing long-term damage in the brain, which most likely will be permanent.
At this young age, the brain is still undergoing maturation, some growth, and significant fine-tuning. We know that even by the teenage years, the prefrontal areas of the brain, responsible for social control and complex learning, are not fully developed.242 Many drugs alter this process, resulting in brains that interpret reality in bizarre ways, or produce emotional cripples unable to cope in society. Several studies have shown a direct connection between juvenile crime and drug use, especially violent crimes, which is not surprising.
The glutamate neurotransmitter plays a major role in the parts of the brain controlling emotion. Of particular importance are parts of the limbic system known as the amygdala and hypothalamus, both of which contain many glutamate receptors. Animal experiments where injury was caused to those parts of the brain demonstrate that intense, purposeful attacks of rage could be elicited using glutamate. Mice with these lesions could be made to attack cats.
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