crystal-methThe side-effects of chronic methamphetamine use can be insidious, potentially damaging the brain. New research from the University of Utah and South Korea, suggests that adolescents who chronically use methamphetamine experience greater and more widespread alterations in their brain than adults, Science Daily reports.

Researchers performed MRI brain scans on both adults and adolescents who chronically use methamphetamine. The scans of adolescents showed decreased thickness in the gray matter in the frontal cortex, the area of the brain believed to control the “executive function,” being responsible for organization, reason and remembering things. Using a special kind of MRI, diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), researchers observed alterations to the white matter as well, which could mean damage to neurons which are responsible for relaying information throughout the brain, according to the article.

The decreased cortical thickness in the frontal cortex of adolescent users is a major concern, according to the researchers. Shedding light on this occurrence may help researchers understand why adolescent users are prone to relapse.

“It’s particularly unfortunate that meth appears to damage that part of the brain, which is still developing in young people and is critical for cognitive ability,” says In Kyoon Lyoo, M.D., Ph.D., of Ewha W. University in Seoul, South Korea. “Damage to that part of the brain is especially problematic because adolescents’ ability to control risky behavior is less mature than that of adults. The findings may help explain the severe behavioral issues and relapses that are common in adolescent drug addiction.”

The brains of 111 (51 who used meth and 60 that did not) South Korean adolescents and 114 (54 meth users and 60 non-users) adults were scanned by researchers, the article reports. The scans of adult methamphetamine users did not exhibit as much damage to the gray and white matter as the adolescents.

“There is a critical period of brain development for specific functions, and it appears that adolescents who abuse methamphetamine are at great risk for derailing that process,” says Perry F. Renshaw, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A., University of Utah USTAR investigator and professor of psychiatry. “I think the results show it is hugely important to keep kids off drugs.”

The findings were published in Molecular Psychiatry.