Scans offer images of brain toll from 'ice'
Disabilities caused by drug use take years to heal, UH researchers find
Brains injured by the use of crystal methamphetamine, or "ice," show swelling, inflammation and less organized nerve fibers, according to University of Hawaii research into the growing problem of mental disability due to addictive disorders.
UH medical researchers have received about $15 million from the National Institutes of Health and expect another $15 million in grants to examine the chemistry, physiology and functions of the brain with the magnetic resonance imaging system at the Queen's Medical Center.
"It really affects their ability to function," Dr. Linda Chang, co-director of the Neuroscience and Imaging Research Program at Queen's, said of crystal meth users.
Nationwide, the health and social costs of substance abuse and mental illness are "almost unfathomable," said Dr. Mark Mitchell, chief executive officer of the Kahi Mohala psychiatric hospital. Direct and indirect costs total $350 billion annually, he said.
Between 28 and 30 percent of the population has a mental illness or an addictive disorder, and "we are experiencing significantly greater proportions of people with co-occurring disorders," Mitchell added.
At Kahi Mohala's Ewa Beach facility, about 80 percent of inpatients have both mental illness and a substance abuse disorder, he said.
Chang and her colleagues, psychiatry professors Helenna Nakama and Daniel Alicata, are using imaging techniques to see how drugs affect the brain at different stages of life.
She discussed some of their findings at a recent Kahi Mohala Behavioral Health gathering at the Pacific Club, and later in an interview.
Abnormalities in the brain improve with treatment, Chang said. But even after adults stop using ice, she said, "We see loss of nerve cells in the brain, inflammation and addictive effects. It takes a long time for the brain to heal, at least a year or two before we see improvement."
She and Nakama are evaluating symptoms in ice users in treatment, she said. "There seems to be a strong relationship between depression and cravings for drugs," she said. "It's important to treat depression and cravings to stop drug abuse."
In a small study she did at the University of California-Los Angeles before joining UH, Chang said she found children of women who used ice during pregnancy had a smaller brain structure.
"This is telling us they might not be growing normally," Chang said.
She is planning a larger study of 60 children ages 3 or 4 who were exposed to ice before birth, with 60 who were not exposed. She will follow each child's growth with an annual brain scan for five years, she said.
A new study also is planned of drug-exposed newborns, she said.
Chang said Alicata and co-investigator Dr. Christine Cloak are studying 75 adolescents who used meth or are still using it, and 75 teens who do not use drugs.
Residents interested in enrolling in the studies may call 586-7465.