June 30, 2009
Meth Addict Impulse Control Takes Over Year To Recover

The brains of methamphetamine abusers take over a year after they stop using before they develop the ability to ignore distractions and concentrate on a task. This disability makes it a lot easier for them to be tempted to start using again.

In a study published online by the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, UC Davis researchers report that it takes at least a year for former methamphetamine users to regain impulse control. The results tell recovering substance abusers, their families and drug-treatment specialists that it can take an extended period of time for the brain functions critical to recovery to improve.

"Recovery from meth abuse does not happen overnight," said Ruth Salo, lead author of the study and a UC Davis assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. "It may take a year or even longer for cognitive processes such as impulse control and attentional focus to improve. Treatment programs need to consider this when monitoring recovering addicts' progress during their early periods of abstinence."

I see this as further evidence that drug addicts have very impaired free will.

What would help them: A way to totally remove them from access to meth for long enough time for their brains to partially recover (and I say partially because some of the damage is permanent). Put them on an isolated island for over a year where the supplies to the island are highly controlled. For example, have a ship that offloads goods monthly at a port and use a purchasing agent who hides from the sellers where their food and other supplies are really going. Reduce the number of people in the supply chain so that the odds of illicit drugs reaching the island go way down. Freed from drug access for a long enough time they'd have a much better chance for their brains to partially heal to the extent that they'd have a chance of controlling their impulses once released back into society.

Meth uses do poorly in the Stroop attention test for the ability to concentrate on a task and not get distracted.

For the current study, Salo used the widely-validated, computer-based Stroop attention test to measure the abilities of 65 recovering methamphetamine abusers to use cognitive control or direct their attention to specific tasks while ignoring distractors. Study participants had been abstinent for a minimum of three weeks and a maximum of 10 years, and they had previously used the drug for periods ranging from 24 months to 28 years. The data for the 65 individuals were compared to Stroop attention test data from 33 participants who had never used methamphetamine.

"The test taps into something people do in everyday life: make choices in the face of conflicting impulses that can promote a strong but detrimental tendency," Salo explained. "For meth users, impairments in this decision-making ability might make them more likely to spend a paycheck on the immediate satisfaction of getting high rather than on the longer-term satisfaction gained by paying rent or buying groceries."

MRI studies also show partial return to normality after a year of not using meth.

According to Salo, the new study mirrors previous magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies she and her colleagues published in 2005 showing a partial normalization of chemicals in selected brain regions after one year of methamphetamine abstinence.

Stem cell and gene therapies will some day offer prospects for much faster and more thorough recovery. Imagine a stem cell therapy that gives people greater ability to concentrate than they had even before they started using. Imagine a therapy that reduces cravings and makes people feel more calm. The brain is going to be the most difficult to repair organ because it is so incredibly complex. So I'm holding out earlier hope for heart repair or liver repair for example. But I expect brain damage from addiction will become at least partially repairable with stem cells and other new wave treatments that repair tissue.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 June 30 12:20 PM  Brain Addiction

Nisbett said at June 30, 2009 1:02 PM:

They were always that way even before the addiction. Call them addiction prone if you like.
A racial breakdown might reveal some interesting genetic contributions to the problem.

Randall Parker said at June 30, 2009 1:35 PM:


Sure, people who become addicted are different beforehand on average than people who do not become addicted. No doubt.

But why the better results among people who have been off drugs for longer periods of time? Is that a selection effect where people who are less distractable and less impulsive are more able to stay off drugs once they've stopped using? I doubt that's the total explanation.

Bruce said at June 30, 2009 2:44 PM:

A retired meth cook told me pot makes you sit around and watch TV; coke makes you tell everyone you're god; crack makes you bust head for 20$ and meth makes you work four jobs at once.

Really, it's an upper. Ask anyone. The 'ability to focus' comes right back when your given toothless redneck scores more.

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