MANY young ice addicts have shrunken brains the size of people aged in their 70s and giving up drugs is unlikely to reverse the damage, research has found.
Staff at the University of Western Australia used magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of addicts who use about one gram of crystal methamphetamine a week.
They found a 28-year-old man who had been injecting ice twice a week had a brain about 15 per cent smaller than expected, while a 38-year-old who had been using ice for 10 years had severe scarring on his brain that could not be attributed to any other cause.
Most people's brains shrink by about 5 per cent a decade after age 40 and brain shrinkage has been closely linked to Alzheimer's disease.
The results of the study, which will be presented at this week's Australasian College for Emergency Medicine conference in New Zealand, shocked lead researcher Daniel Fatovich, who said the brains of long-term addicts were "unlikely to recover", even if they stopped using drugs. "It proves that not only does crystal methamphetamine use take up a lot of time and resources in our emergency departments, it also causes structural abnormalities of the brain which will have a long-term effect."
In 2005, Dr Fatovich found that about 1.2 per cent of all emergency department attendances at Royal Perth Hospital were causally related to amphetamine use.
About 71 per cent were men, with an average age of 28. About a third arrived by ambulance and 16 per cent were taken to the hospital by police. A third of patients required sedation, 40 per cent required admission and 37 per cent required psychiatric evaluation.
"We concluded that amphetamine-related presentations ... have a major impact on hospital EDs," he said. "Patients are often agitated and aggressive, require extensive resources and frequently re-attend."
A 2004 report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the United States found users with a long history of methamphetamine abuse had reduced levels of dopamine, associated with slowed motor skills and weakened memories. Those who remained abstinent for 14 months regrew most of their damaged dopamine receptors but showed no improvement in the cognitive abilities damaged by the drug.
Dr Fatovich said he had also found a direct link between drug use and sexually transmitted diseases.
About 25 per cent of people attending a chlamydia screening program reported using ice, 40 per cent used ecstasy and 81 per cent used cannabis.
Kate Benson, Medical Reporter
November 23, 2008
The Sydney Morning Herald