By Deborah Condon
Researchers have found that young heroin users suffer a level of brain damage similar to that seen in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
The research team from the University of Edinburgh studied the autopsied brains of 34 drug users with a history of opiate abuse - mainly heroin and methadone. Most had died of a drug overdose, but all were HIV negative and had no history of head injuries.
They also looked at the autopsied brains of 16 people who had no history of drug abuse or neurological impairment.
The average age in both groups was 26 and drug abusers as young as 17 were included.
The study found that young drug abusers were up to three times more likely to suffer brain damage, than those who did not use drugs. The drug abusers meanwhile sustained a level of brain damage normally only seen in much older people and similar to the early stages of Alzheimer's.
"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", said lead researcher, Professor Jeanne Bell.
Professor Bell said that in a previous study, the research team found that drug abuse causes low grade inflammation in the brain. Taken together, she explained, the two studies suggest that intravenous opiate abuse may be linked to premature ageing of the brain.
"This study shows that drug abuse can lead to a build up of proteins which cause severe nerve cell damage and death in essential parts of the brain. The drug users we looked at sadly died at a young age, but there are many others who don't realise the long-term effects that these drugs may be causing", Professor Bell said.
In Ireland, the vast majority of heroin users live in the eastern region. An estimated 13,000 heroin users currently live in Dublin.
Details of this study are published in the journal, Neuropathology and Applied Neurobiology.
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