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Young drug abusers suffer brain damage similar to early Alzheimer's, says new research

Young drug abusers are up to three times more likely to suffer brain damage than those who don't use drugs, according to research published online by Neuropathology and Applied Neurobiology.

The brains of 34 intravenous drug abusers, who had mainly used heroin and methadone, were examined after death and compared with 16 young people who had not used drugs.

This revealed that the drug abusers sustained a level of brain damage normally only seen in much older people and similar to the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

"Our study shows evidence of an increased risk of brain damage associated with heroin and methadone use, which may be highest in the young, when individuals are most likely to acquire the habit" says co-author Jeanne Bell Professor of Neuropathology at the University of Edinburgh.

Damaged nerve cells were identified in the key areas of the brain involved in learning, memory and emotional well-being.

"We found that the brains of these young drug abusers showed significantly higher levels of two key proteins associated with brain damage" adds Professor Bell.

"In a previous study we found out that drug abuse causes low grade inflammation in the brain. Taken together, the two studies suggest that intravenous opiate abuse may be linked to premature ageing of the brain."

The 34 documented drug users had a history of opiate abuse mainly heroin and methadone but were HIV negative and had no history of head injury. The 16 control cases had no history of drug abuse or neurological impairment.

The average age in these two groups was only 26 years and included drug abusers as young as 17.

Tau protein, which in its soluble form is essential for communication and transport within brain cells, had become insoluble in some cells, causing nerve cell damage and death in selected areas of the brain.

Other nerve cells showed an accumulation of the amyloid precursor protein, which sugg
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Contact: Annette Whibley
wordwizard@clara.co.uk
Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
21-Jun-2005


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