Brain Holes and Other Meth Myths

By Dirk Hanson 05/27/11

Meth does many nasty things to your brain—but putting holes in it is not one of them.

It’s melting, it’s melting!
Photo via meth-addiction

Speed kills—and everybody has known it since the first posters went up in the Haight-Ashbury 45 years ago. Still, there are many myths about methamphetamine, and this one is our admitted favorite: Meth causes holes in your brain. For that matter, so does Ecstasy, according to the usual telling.

Really? Well, okay, as it happens, no. While there is no doubting that sustained meth use changes the way the brain functions, the idea of causing actual holes in working parts of the brain results from a basic misunderstanding of the technology involved in complex brain scans. According to the Meth Kills campaign: “Functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans showing brain activity depict areas of low or no activity as holes. These scans depict functional changes, not the actual structure of the brain. In other words, the apparent “holes” in the image indicate areas in the brain that are inactive, not holes in the structure of the brain.”

A similar outcry accompanied the release of brain scans from an earlier Ecstasy study. Areas represented as “holes” were, again, regions of the brain that showed less blood flow activity at the time of the scan. As one debunker has pointed out, “a lack of blood flow can be caused, however, by anything as simple as staying up all night, meaning a brain scan conducted on a weary person can reveal 'holes' in some areas of the brain." But these areas of differential blood flow are constantly changing, depending on physical and mental activity, so areas of low blood flow do not necessarily equate to permanent damage, either.

Here are three more of our meth myth favorites from the Meth Kills organization:

--The average length of time from first use of meth to death is five years. No idea where that one came from. Meth Kills says the only fairly consistent pattern, year-wise, is that most meth users have been on speed for about 7 years by the time someone with a clipboard catches up with them for a methamphetamine treatment study

--Using meth once results in addiction. Not reliably true of any addictive drug. While meth is powerfully reinforcing and that first encounter can be a powerful rush, Meth Kills notes that, as with all substances, dependence develops with repeated use.

--Meth is used primarily by white male bikers and truck drivers. If you believe that, we have this bridge we think you might be interested in buying….

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]

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