Parkinson’s is a neurological disease which has devastating effects on the body. It is progressive and incurable. Parkinson’s disease happens when there is a malfunction with the nerve cells in the brain which are responsible for dopamine production. Dopamine is associated with pleasure (more on that in a moment), but also has another important function in the brain: it helps you to control the body by signaling to the part of the brain that directs movement.
When someone suffers from Parkinson’s, they’re no longer able to create enough dopamine. This is due to a physical problem in the brain. The deficiency causes Parkinson’s patients to have a hard time controlling their bodies. They may suffer from stiff muscles, from persistent tremors (the most common marker of Parkinson’s), or other symptoms.
The causes of Parkinson’s are not fully known. In some people it is caused by faulty genes, but this doesn’t explain every occurrence. Scientists are investigating whether it may also be caused by exposure to toxins, the simple fact of aging, or by other factors. Interestingly, a recent study carried out in Utah has indicated that methamphetamine use triples the risk of developing Parkinson’s.
HOW METHAMPHETAMINE DAMAGES THE BODY
Meth wreaks havoc on the body in many ways, but for the purposes of this article we can stick to the effects on the brain and on motor function. In the brain, meth triggers the release of massive quantities of dopamine. In animal lab experiments, dopamine was measured at 200 units after sex, 350 after cocaine, and about 1,250 units after a dose of methamphetamine. There’s nothing in real life that triggers that much dopamine to be released.
Because of this whopping surge of dopamine, chronic meth use can damage the pleasure centers of the brain. The pleasure centers are more formally known as dopamine receptors, which means they receive dopamine and use it to regulate the body’s mood and function. With chronic meth use, however, they are under bombardment at a much higher capacity than they’re prepared for. This causes the dopamine receptors to become less able to do their job — ultimately making it impossible for the meth user to feel pleasure at all.
HOW METH AND PARKINSON’S MAY BE RELATED
To be clear, the Utah study definitely showed that methamphetamine use triples the risk of Parkinson’s. What it didn’t show is exactly why this is the case. However, there are some clues as to why this could be happening.
The obvious connection is that methamphetamine usage affects dopamine levels and causes changes to the brain, just like Parkinson’s does. Where Parkinson’s is caused by failure of the brain to produce dopamine, methamphetamine overproduces dopamine and ends up damaging the dopamine receptors. In either case, the brain is then not able to get the dopamine it needs.
In the case of meth use, the damaged areas of the brain can repair themselves over the course of a few years, but it’s unclear whether they can ever recover to full capacity. A study done by the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse showed that even when users’ brains have repaired most of the physical damage, the patients in question still suffer damage to their cognitive function, memory, judgment and motor coordination.
It’s certainly plausible that perhaps the damage to the pleasure-center dopamine receptors could be mirrored by damage to the dopamine receptors which control body movements. In some cases, this damage could open the door to the development of Parkinson’s. More study is needed, of course, but this is an interesting development in the study of a disease which has been all too mysterious.