A study has revealed that using club drugs like Ecstasy is equivalent in impact to a traumatic brain injury.
Researchers from University of Florida have claimed that both may trigger a similar chemical chain reaction in the brain, leading to cell death, memory loss and potentially irreversible brain damage.
Over the past five years, series of studies were conducted at UF. According to findings, using the popular club drug Ecstasy, also called MDMA, and other forms of methamphetamine lead to the same type of brain changes, cell loss and protein fluctuations in the brain that occur after a person endures a sharp blow to the head.
"Using methamphetamine is like inflicting a traumatic brain injury on yourself," said Firas Kobeissy, a postdoctoral associate in the College of Medicine department of psychiatry.
He added: "We found that a lot of brain cells are being injured by these drugs. That's alarming to society now. People don't seem to take club drugs as seriously as drugs such as heroin or cocaine."
Kobeissy worked with UF researchers Dr. Mark Gold, chief of the division of addiction medicine at UF's McKnight Brain Institute and one of the country's leading experts on addiction medicine, and Kevin Wang, director of the UF Center for Neuroproteomics and Biomarkers Research.
They compared what happened in the brains of rats, who were given large doses of methamphetamine with what happened to those that had suffered a traumatic brain injury.
The group's research has already shown how traumatic brain injury affects brain cells in rats. They found similar damage in the rats exposed to methamphetamine.
In the brain, club drugs set off a chain of events that injures brain cells. The drugs seem damaging to certain proteins in the brain, which causes protein levels to fluctuate. When proteins are damaged, brain cells could die.
Kobeissy also said that, when some proteins change under the influence of methamphetamine, they lead to inflammation in the brain, which can be deadly,
The team of researchers used novel protein analysis methods to understand how drug abuse alters the brain.
Looking specifically at proteins in the rat cortex, it was discovered that about 12 percent of the proteins in this region of the brain showed the same kinds of changes after either methamphetamine use or traumatic brain injury.
Kobeissy said that there are about 30,000 proteins in the brain so such a significant difference indicates that a similar mechanism is at work after both traumatic brain injury and methamphetamine abuse, "Sometimes people go to the clubs and take three tablets of Ecstasy or speed," Kobeissy said.
He added: "That may be a toxic dose for them. Toxic effects can be seen for methamphetamine, Ecstasy and traumatic injury in different areas of the brain." Gold said that the popular belief is that the effects of drugs of abuse wear off in the body the same way common medications do, but that may not be the case.
"These data and the previous four years of data suggest some drugs, especially methamphetamine, cause changes that are not readily reversible," said Gold. "Future research is necessary for us to determine when or if methamphetamine-related brain changes reverse themselves," he added.
Gold and Dennis Steindler, director of UF's McKnight Brain Institute and an expert on stem cells, are planning studies to find out if stem cells can be applied to repair drug-related brain damage.
Researchers are also trying to uncover all the various ways drugs damage and kill brain cells. During their protein analysis, researchers discovered that oxidation was damaging some proteins, causing drastic imbalance in the molecules.
"When proteins are oxidized they are not functional. When proteins are not working, the cell cannot function," said Kobeissy. Nurologist Dr. Jean Lud Cadet, chief of the molecular neuropsychiatry branch of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said analyzing proteins is important to understanding how drugs such as methamphetamine affect the brain.
"I think saying the results of methamphetamine abuse are comparable to the results of a traumatic brain injury is a new idea," said Cadet.
He added: "I agree with (the findings). Our own work shows that methamphetamine is pretty toxic to the brains of animals. In humans, imaging studies of patients who use methamphetamine chronically show abnormalities in the brain.
"Abuse of methamphetamine is very dangerous."