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Feb 13, 2015 12:31 AM EST

Meth May Mess Up Brains of Youths Far More Than Adults


Teens who habitually use methamphetamine suffer greater and more widespread alterations in their brain than adults who chronically abuse the drug-and damage, according to a recent study.

Researchers at the University of Utah and South Korea found that with chronic adolescent meth users in South Korea had decreased thickness in the gray matter of their frontal cortex, the area of the brain believed to direct people's ability to organize, reason and remember things, known as the executive function. Adult brains showed less damage.

The researchers found the evidence of damage to cortical thickness in the frontal cortex of adolescent users alarming.

"It's particularly unfortunate that meth appears to damage that part of the brain, which is still developing in young people and is critical for cognitive ability," In Kyoon Lyoo, first author of the study, said in a statement. "Damage to that part of the brain is especially problematic because adolescents' ability to control risky behavior is less mature than that of adults. The findings may help explain the severe behavioral issues and relapses that are common in adolescent drug addiction."

The results also indicate that it might take much less meth to cause greater damage in adolescent brains because youths typically use smaller amounts of the drug than adults.

For the study, researchers scanned the brains of 111 South Korean adolescents and 114 adults. Among the younger people, 51 used meth while 60 did not. The adults included 54 meth users and 60 non-users.

"There is a critical period of brain development for specific functions, and it appears that adolescents who abuse methamphetamine are at great risk for derailing that process," Perry Renshaw, senior author of the study, said in a statement. "I think the results show it is hugely important to keep kids off drugs."

Meth is the one of the most widely abused drugs in Asia, but it's also a problem in the United States, with the Western region of the country experiencing the highest rates of use. Studies with rodents have shown that meth damages the brains of adult rats more than young ones, but whether that holds true in people has been cause for debate.

The findings are detailed in Molecular Psychiatry.

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