womanMethamphetamine is a drug known for being cheap, easy to get especially in rural areas, and very, very addictive. It’s so addictive, in fact, that the primary slogan used regarding meth is “not even once,” because it can hook a user in just one dose. Because of its high addiction rate, educators and government administrators have been very interested in how to get teens to say no to the drug. For a little more than a decade, one of the more popular ways to warn teens away has been to show “before and after” pictures showing the devastation that meth can wreak on a person in just a few years.

These pictures often contrast someone reasonably attractive or at least “normal” with a haggard, thin copy of themselves that has aged at least three times more than the actual number of elapsed years. From tired skin to drastically thin faces, from dry, thinned hair to crusty scabbed eruptions all over the body, it becomes quickly and viscerally clear how ruthlessly meth affects its users.

What wasn’t known until a recent study is why the drug causes this drastic aging process. However, this study (done by scientists from the Italian Institute of Technology and from UC Irvine) has revealed new information: the rapid aging process is caused by the fact that meth causes abnormalities in the body’s metabolism of fat.

THE SCIENCE

This alteration in the process of fat metabolism causes the body to generate a type of molecule which “accelerates cell death.” Here’s how it works: There is a certain protein within each cell which is adversely affected by methamphetamine. It’s called “nuclear factor kappa beta.” When it is fed by meth, it causes increased production of a substance called ceramide.

Ceramide basically controls the cell’s energy level, use of nutrients and speed of the cell’s function as a whole. More ceramide means more rapid metabolism, which means a faster aging process. With enough exposure to meth, cells will eventually speed themselves up enough that they will die altogether. This is what leads to meth users looking haggard and old, even just a year after they begin abusing the drug.

The scientists on this study are hopeful that now that they understand ceramide’s role in the drastic aging process, they will be able to figure out some way to reduce its effects by inhibiting the action of nuclear factor kappa beta. Meth users would then be able to lead much healthier lives.

THE CAVEAT

While this is a good scientific discovery and does hold some promise for reversing some of the damage caused by meth, it should not be held up as any kind of solution to the problem of meth addiction. This is not to say that addicts don’t deserve any help. Basic human kindness dictates that anybody (yes, even an addict) deserves medical help and care if it’s available to be provided to them.

However, it’s a risky idea to provide treatment of this nature without taking the care to also address the addict’s underlying problems which led them to drug use. Without an effective treatment plan for helping addicts to get clean, fixing their rapid aging would merely enable them to take more meth, for longer periods of time.

It is much to be hoped that the scientists working with this discovery will work out some way to neutralize the Kappa Beta protein. Then, to ensure maximum effectiveness and help to addicts, perhaps it will be made available for use to rehab programs throughout the country. That would make for the most effective change!