BBC World Service

The World Today for May 10, 2006

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Aired on BBC World Service Radio, May 10, 2006



MAX PEARSON, BBC: Now on the streets it's called speed, crank, ice, zip, christy, and meth. Its real name is methamphetamine and it's one of the most addictive drugs on the planet. The American Drug Enforcement Agency says it's now used more than heroin and cocaine combined. One of the highest levels of methamphetamine abuse is in Los Angeles. Dr. Paul Thompson is a neuroscientist researching the effects of the drug at the University of California in Los Angeles. He's on the line now. Just how damaging is this to the human brain?

PAUL THOMPSON: Good morning. Well, we've actually been looking at this for some time, using clinical brain MRI scans. One of the things that we saw is that about 10% of the brain tissue is actually damaged and gone after people have been regularly using this drug. Now that's equivalent to the amount of tissue lost in Alzheimer's disease. It produces profound depression, memory loss, symptoms of anxiety. And even though this is, in the short term, giving people essentially a lot of energy and a rush, and euphoria, over the long term it actually produces devastating symptoms.

MAX PEARSON, BBC: When you say 'over the long term' and 'regular use', how long are you talking about? Because 10% of brain tissue loss is an astonishing figure.

PAUL THOMPSON: It is quite remarkable. We think that 1% of the brain's tissue is lost per year. So these are people who are regularly smoking methamphetamine maybe every few days. A frightening statistic is that 5% of teenagers in the United States have used methamphetamine at some point. Just through regular use, 1% per year of your brain tissue is lost. This coincides with memory decline, anxiety and over a very long term, motor tremors a little bit like Parkinson's disease, where there is obviously a complete inability to control motor function.

MAX PEARSON, BBC: And, a characteristic, even in the short term, is a personality change.

PAUL THOMPSON: Absolutely. This drug provokes people to do things that they wouldn't normally do. We know that many of the people who are arrested in Los Angeles, about 40% of them have been using methamphetamine. This means that the energy, the drive, the inability to think through risks, causes a lot of violent crimes. It's involved in a lot of violent incidents and murders in the United States. And, we are worried that as this drug is spreading throughout the U.S. and overseas, this could produce a massive increase in violent crime.

MAX PEARSON, BBC: Right. As a social problem, how do you counter a drug which gives a euphoric high, which can causes personalities to change, and lead to violence, and yet is so readily available, so relatively cheap, and as the DEA says now, is the biggest and most widely used drug on the planet?

PAUL THOMPSON: Absolutely. Well there are two ways. One is to try to shut down the labs that are producing it. The drug is completely man-made. It's usually made from the chemicals that are in cold medicine, which have extremely wide availability. In the United States, there has actually been a restriction on the availability of cold medicine, to make it more difficult to synthesize the drug. The second thing is to combat its effects. We know that 35 million people worldwide use methamphetamine regularly -- that's a devastating loss of mental function, and a danger worldwide. Just through therapy and trying to understand people's addiction and trying to realize that this is causing progressive brain damage, that's the only way that we can get through to people that this is causing progressive brain tissue loss.

MAX PEARSON, BBC: In a word, do you believe that anything like enough is being done to win the campaign against methamphetamine?

PAUL THOMPSON: Well, I think part of the problem is that it's not understood how devastating it is. So, most people think of stimulants like caffeine in coffee, and think that the effect is only psychological. The problem with methamphetamine is that it's something that's ten thousand times as powerful as coffee, and it actually kills the brain cells it is stimulating, and they can never be replaced. So I think part of the message is in realizing how progressively devastating this drug is. The brain tissue that is damaged by it can never be replaced. That is basically the tragedy that we are looking at today.

MAX PEARSON, BBC: Dr. Paul Thompson from the University of California in Los Angeles. Thanks for joining us.

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