If anyone doubted that drug use can damage the brain, new studies using brain scans show methamphetamine abusers’ brains have damage similar to dementia, as well as considerable brain inflammation.

The poetry in Lee L.’s voice as he describes his great love is hypnotic.

“I loved Crystal,” he gushes. Lee’s not speaking of a person, but methamphetamine, known by its street name, Crystal Meth. “It gave me a sense of power. It made me feel hungry. It made me feel sexual. It made me feel virile. It was like all of the switches in my body and in my brain felt like they finally got turned on.”

Lee—a 42-year-old composer who asked that his last name not be used in keeping with his involvement in the twelve-step program, New York Crystal Meth Anonymous—hunted down the drug as the days dragged between runs, even though he knew it was doing considerable bodily damage. “The physical body collapses a little every time, certainly in my case, every time that I used,” he recalls. “The reward that it got was it hit upon a pleasure center in the brain.”

For the first time, scientists have seen exactly which brain areas in both chronic meth users and recovering meth addicts change. Paul Thompson, a University of California at Los Angeles brain researcher, used high-resolution MRI brain scans to compare the brains of 22 chronic meth users with those of 21 non-users.

Thompson told Discover Magazine that the MRI scans of addicts showed evidence of considerable brain inflammation and that two key brain areas associated with memory—the same ones damaged in early Alzheimer’s—shrunk some 10 percent.

“One thing the drug users reported was loss of memory,” he says. “They have poorer memory of people the same age and the loss of tissue in the memory areas of the brain linked with this functional decline. So, people who lost most tissue in the memory areas actually had worse performance on tasks that involved memory.”

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