Differences Between Amphetamine and Methamphetamine

Differences Between Amphetamine and Methamphetamine

Differences Between Amphetamine and Methamphetamine

Differences Between Amphetamine and MethamphetamineAmphetamine and methamphetamine are stimulant drugs that change normal function in the brain and body by altering levels of naturally occurring substances called neurotransmitters. The two drugs are so closely related that methamphetamine turns into amphetamine when it starts to break down inside the bloodstream. However, despite their similarities, the two drugs have different levels of potency and work in somewhat different ways inside the body. In addition, while doctors commonly use amphetamine-based prescription medications for the treatment of certain health problems, use of methamphetamine-based prescription medications is much less common.

Background Information

Amphetamine and methamphetamine both belong to a class of stimulant drugs known as substituted amphetamines; drugs in this class get their name because they contain a central amphetamine structure surrounded by other types of atoms. Some substituted amphetamines, such as pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, occur naturally in plant sources. Others—including amphetamine, methamphetamine, MDMA (Ecstasy) and a substance called methcathinone—come entirely from manmade processes. Amphetamine was first developed in the late 1800s in Germany, although it went more or less unused until the 1920s, when several countries started using the drug to combat symptoms of fatigue in military personnel. Japanese scientists first developed methamphetamine in the 1920s; like amphetamine, the drug originally saw wide use as a stimulant in military settings.

Effects on Neurotransmitters

Inside the central nervous system, both amphetamine and methamphetamine increase the normal levels of three different neurotransmitters–norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine—that help relay the messages required to coordinate nerve cell communication and properly control a variety of processes throughout the body. Increases in norepinephrine levels boost the body’s natural “fight-or-flight” responses, and produce corresponding results that include narrowing of the blood vessels, increased oxygen intake and increased distribution of oxygen-rich blood in the circulatory system. Increases in serotonin levels produce mood improvement, while increases in dopamine levels produce heightened sensations of pleasure in a brain pathway that’s normally used to reward behaviors that help sustain everyday existence.

Compared to amphetamine, methamphetamine produces relatively intense mind alteration and relatively mild body alteration, according to researchers at the University of Arizona. This difference in effect is the direct result of structural features in methamphetamine that allow its molecules to pass through the blood-brain barrier relatively easily, and thereby cause greater degrees of alteration in the brain’s neurotransmitter levels. Methamphetamine’s stronger impact on the brain’s neurotransmitters is directly responsible for the drug’s heightened potential to produce addiction and toxic side effects when compared to amphetamine.

Common Legitimate Uses

Amphetamine is one of the two active ingredients in the attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medication Adderall; the other main ingredient in the medication, called dextroamphetamine, is a chemical mirror image of amphetamine. Other prescription medications that either contain amphetamine or break down into amphetamine in the body include the ADHD treatments Dexedrine, Vyanse, ProCentra, and Dextrostat. The same form of methamphetamine manufactured illegally in makeshift “meth labs” (known chemically as dextromethamphetamine) is also prepared legally in legitimate laboratories and prescribed by doctors as methamphetamine hydrochloride (Desoxyn), a medication used for ADHD treatment and short-term appetite suppression. Another form of methamphetamine with no mind-altering properties, called levomethamphetamine, is commonly used as a decongestant in over-the-counter medications.

Addiction Risks

When abused, both amphetamine and methamphetamine produce changes in normal brain chemistry that promote the development of drug addiction. However, as noted previously, methamphetamine has a stronger effect on the brain than amphetamine. In practical terms, this means that risks for methamphetamine addiction are higher than risks for amphetamine addiction. Common legitimate uses of these two drugs reflect their relative addiction risks. While they can cause problems when used improperly, amphetamine-containing medications are regularly prescribed to both children and adults with ADHD. Although researchers dispute the implications of this practice to some degree, most experts feel that proper use of these drugs poses little or no concern for long-term health.

On the other hand, while non-mind-altering levomethamphetamine is used without health concerns in nasal decongestants, doctors tend not to prescribe mind-altering methamphetamine chloride, even when such a prescription falls well within established treatment guidelines. To a certain extent, this practice may reflect a general discomfort about prescribing a drug with such a well-established negative reputation in its illegal street form. However, for the most part, it reflects a genuine concern about the risk factors involved in methamphetamine use, including the potential for unintentional addiction.

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