Before fentanyl was the demon drug du jour, meth was seen as the worst, most destructive, most evil chemical you could find on the streets.
…we’re constantly warned never to try meth—”not even once,” goes the refrain—or it will instantly cause addiction and ruin your life.
Here’s a secret: Meth is an incredible medicine. Some preliminary research suggests that meth can be neuroprotective against stroke and traumatic brain injury, even stimulating the growth of brain cells.
Stimulant-related deaths are indeed on the rise in North America—in some regions, meth is even more prevalent than heroin
Other Americans are prescribed actual, pure meth by their doctors.
It happens less frequently these days, but in ADHD, obesity, or narcolepsy cases where nothing else has worked, a drug called Desoxyn (methamphetamine hydrochloride) can sometimes help. It can even be prescribed to children as young as seven.
Meth didn’t make a “comeback”; it never left.
It can’t return with a “vengeance” and it can’t be “evil” because we’re talking about a chemical compound here. It has no personality, no feelings, no intentions.
Thus it does a disservice to science and to medicine, as well as to the people who use these drugs responsibly, to treat a molecule with dualistic properties purely as a poison.
‘It’s Just a Stimulant, Like Any Other Stimulant’
For Jordan*, the meth he’s prescribed works better against his ADHD with fewer side effects than the Adderall he’d been on for 20 years.
Jordan, a middle-aged man from North Carolina who works in clinical research, now switches every three months between Adderall and Desoxyn to prevent building a tolerance to either stimulant.
Jordan says. “I’ve been on the medications for years, but I can take Adderall or methamphetamine and take a nap afterwards. I don’t have any noticeable side effects.”
So can I! I have ADHD and am prescribed a relatively low dose of Adderall. I’ve noticed that I can take a full dose and it seems to make me less frazzled, to the point that I also can fall asleep with it in my system.
Jordan also doesn’t feel “high” from the doses he takes—approximately 10 to 15 milligrams of meth per day.
When I read articles and books by people who have grappled with an addiction to methamphetamine, I’ve always heard about the euphoria and the ability to stay up for days, be super productive and energized.
Not so for me.
I suppose mine is a “paradoxical reaction” (like I have to antihistamines), where it feels like it’s slowing my brain to a speed I can actually follow instead of zipping all over crazily (like a BB in a boxcar).
Part of the reason Jordan asked to try Desoxyn in the first place was to see if he’d develop any of the “stereotypical meth addict problems,” as he puts it. He hasn’t.
For Joan*, a 66-year-old grandmother living off the grid in northern Georgia, Desoxyn makes her feel normal. “Not high, not hyped up, just normal,” she tells me.
But Desoxyn has not only helped her socialize, manage bills, and finish her master’s degree in social work; it’s also helped with Joan’s depression and self-esteem.
“The only downside is the cost,” she says. “It’s one of the oldest drugs on the market, but even generic, it is outrageously expensive.”
How Meth Can Treat Brain Injury—and Much More
Street doses of meth can be extremely damaging to your health. The purity of such drugs is often unknown, and repeated, high doses of meth have been proven to be neurotoxic.
But in low, pharmaceutical-grade doses, meth may actually repair and protect the brain in certain circumstances.
This was first discovered in 2008, when researchers at Queen’s Medical Center Neuroscience Institute in Honolulu, Hawaii, unexpectedly found that patients who tested positive for methamphetamine were significantly less likely to die from the injuries.
To learn more, in 2011, a different team from the University of Montana applied meth to slices of rat brain that had been damaged to resemble the brains of stroke victims
- At low doses, the meth gave better behavioral outcomes and even reduced brain-cell death.
- At high doses, the meth made outcomes worse.
Because meth stimulates the flow of important neurotransmitters—
- serotonin, and
—the Montana researchers theorized that methamphetamine may provide neuroprotection through multiple pathways.
To test the proposition, Poulsen and colleagues gave TBI to rats. The rats given meth performed better at a task called the Morris water maze,
But the team also found that low doses of meth were protecting immature neurons, while also promoting the birth of new brain cells that are important for learning and memory. The same was also true for rats that were given meth, but not injured.
a wide variety of stimulant therapies for TBI is being explored, with positive results. These include trials with
- modafinil, a narcolepsy drug;
- amantadine, a Parkinson’s drug; and
- dextroamphetamine, one of the components of Adderall.
Methylphenidate, also known as Ritalin, seems to be the stimulant most popular in these trials. For example, in 2004, researchers at Drucker Brain Injury Center at MossRehab Hospital in Pennsylvania gave methylphenidate, better known as Ritalin, to 34 patients with moderate to severe TBI. They reported significant improvements in information processing and attention.
Twelve years later, in Gothenburg, Sweden, another 30 patients suffering from prolonged fatigue following TBI were given methylphenidate and observed for six months. They also showed improved cognitive function and reduced fatigue.
But the reason meth isn’t studied more rigorously—for TBI, for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, for stroke—could also come down to money. Methamphetamine is off-patent, meaning there may be less financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies to explore the drug’s potential uses.
While Methamphetamine may not be widely recognized as medicine, it clearly has potential to heal as well as harm.
Recognizing the duality of meth is arguably all the more essential in the face of a rising stimulant overdose crisis.
“Stigma regarding any substance use or substance use disorder is counterproductive,” says Dan Ciccarone, professor of family medicine at the University of California–San Francisco
“Everything will kill you, if you take enough of it,”
Yes, this is even true of water: Hyponatremia
Poulsen says. “Some things don’t require a lot to do that. Meth is one of those things. But just like any drug, the difference between a poison and a cure is the dose.“