ICE is better than sex as far as the brain’s reward and pleasure centre is concerned, which explains why it can be so dangerously addictive, Hunter drug and mental health experts agree.
Even one hit of ice can affect the brain for six months, and chasing that euphoric rush of dopamine can quickly push users down the slippery slope of addiction.
Dopamine is released by the brain during pleasant activities – such as eating, and sex.
But a hit of crystal methamphetamine – ice – can trigger 10 times the amount of dopamine than what is typically released in the brain after sex.
“If food gives you 50 ‘units’ of dopamine, sex gives you 120, alcohol gives you 150 units, and cocaine about 350, methamphetamine gives you about 1200,” Dr Marcia Fogarty, the executive director of Hunter New England Mental Health Services, said – quoting a report compiled by Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital, Nexus and Victorian Dual Diagnosis Initiative.
“So it gives you 10 times the amount of dopamine than what you get from sex.
“You can see why people like it, and why they want more.”
But, it comes at a high cost.
Dr David Outridge, who works in addiction medicine at the Samaritans’ Recovery Point at Broadmeadow, said all addictive drugs released dopamine in larger amounts than we could achieve naturally.
He said the brain was hardwired to develop habits.
Feeling pleasure motivated us to repeat behaviour, which meant anything associated with a surge in pleasure became linked to the situation in which it occurred.
“When you get hungry, you go to the fridge because you have learned certain responses,” Dr Outridge said.
“And because food is pleasant, you get a little dopamine, so there is a wiring of associated things – like the time, the place, the people, the paraphernalia – associated with food, and eating.
“But unlike food, the pleasure from the first shot of ice is 100 times more intense, leading to a very strong association with where you were, what you were doing, and whoever you were with at the time.
“So say you are walking down Hassell Street, suddenly a craving kicks in because that’s where you’ve scored before, and the potential reward is so high.”
But flooding the brain with dopamine could also overload the system, which is why some ice users could not sleep for days, or experienced symptoms of psychosis.
Dr Outridge said while there was no physical withdrawal from ice, users – particularly long-term users – had lower dopamine receptor levels in their brain, which took away their ability to feel pleasure.
Things a person previously took pleasure in – such as going for a surf, spending time with loved ones, or a picnic – no longer interested them.
“It’s a bit like spending all of your pay packet up at the start of the fortnight, and finding things hard until next payday. Dopamine gets used up and leaves one with a lack of it for some time,” he said.
Even once a person stopped using ice, it could take a long time for their dopamine levels to properly recover.
“You are dealing with someone whose dopamine levels are severely impacted,” Dr Outridge said.
“It affects their concentration and motivation.
“For six months, it is just hopeless. By 12 months it is somewhere approaching normality.”
But the good news was the the majority of ice users could be helped with simple treatments.
“It is treatable. It is not hopeless. But people often think - ‘Just stop taking it and go and get a job.’” he said.
“They don’t realise it can take you 12 months to get over… that their mental state is still affected for 12 months after ice use, even after they get off it.
“The majority of people, if they knew what it was doing to them, and took gradual steps to try to get off it, and went to a bit of counselling and group sessions, could save themselves a lot of grief.”