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A new researcher in Missoula is now recruiting participants in the first clinical trial conducted at Montana State University. The goal of the study is to determine whether a popular workout supplement can be used to treat methamphetamine dependence.

Tracy Hellem, PhD, an assistant professor of the College of Nursing at Montana State University, leases office space at the University of Montana and has a team in place to test her hypothesis that creatine monohydrate will reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in methamphetamine users, and thereby will reduce methamphetamine use.

“Unfortunately, meth continues to be a rising problem in our country, particularly in Montana,” Hellem said. “Individuals using meth often have co-occurring mood disorders that also need to be targeted in order to break the cycle. Individuals that have depression might self-medicate with methamphetamine, and methamphetamine is known to cause depression and anxiety, so it’s a cycle that’s hard to break. We hope to discover a treatment that will target mood symptoms and hopefully reduce methamphetamine use.”

Hellem said individuals with symptoms of depression, which include low mood, low energy, overeating and inability to concentrate – turn to meth because it is an attractive option. Methamphetamine increases energy, decreases need for sleep and decreases appetite, “but methamphetamine use results in feelings of depression. So, the bi-directional relationship between depression and methamphetamine use makes treating methamphetamine dependence challenging,” she said.

During her graduate studies at the University of Utah, Hellem worked in a neuroimaging research lab with Dr. Perry Renshaw who has made groundbreaking progress in intervention research using magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS). Hellem said MRS is similar to an MRI but uses different hardware to identify changes in brain chemistry that are associated with mood and substance abuse disorders.

Drs. Renshaw, Hellem and other colleagues discovered deficiencies in brain cellular processes that led them to hypothesize that the nutritional supplement creatine – which is used by athletes to improve energy and stamina – would also help drug users reduce depression and anxiety and ultimately reduce drug use.

“With creatine treatment, we saw the severity of our participant’s depression decreased significantly,” Hellem said. “The next phase of our study will include a larger sample size and will include people with an anxiety disorder. This will be the first study of creatine that includes a triple diagnosis: depression, anxiety and methamphetamine dependence.”

Hellem’s Missoula study also will include both men and women participants, which hasn’t been done before either.

“At the University of Utah, I only worked with females,” she said. “With some of the women I worked with, I would have never guessed that they were using methamphetamine. They were high-functioning meth users who learned early in their meth use to maintain hygiene and self-care. Not everyone fits the billboard picture of a meth user.

“But chronic use has consequences – dental concerns, medical concerns – including a higher risk of having a stroke or heart attack,” she said. “The psychiatric consequences are most prevalent – anxiety, paranoia, depression, psychosis and sleep disturbances. Undoubtedly, it’s a major public health burden that, according to the Office of Attorney General, cost the state of Montana $200 million in 2008.”

Hellem said campaigns and programs to restrict access to ingredients have helped, but the Mexican cartel is now the primary producer and distributor of meth.

“The home production is not as prevalent as it used to be, thanks to law enforcement seizing home laboratories,” she said. “But the Mexican cartel is pushing the market, and they’re very efficient.”

Hellem invites methamphetamine users between the ages of 18 and 59 who also battle depression and anxiety to participate in her 10-week study and said they will be compensated $130 for their participation. The study includes one to two screening visits, eight weeks of treatment with creatine and two follow-up visits.

“I’ve spent a lot of time studying the effects of dependence, and the stories are sad,” Hellem said. “Of course, from a moral standpoint, I want to help people who are struggling. But on a global level, there’s a critical need to know how to treat folks using methamphetamine, and I hope people out there are willing to help me discover treatment options.”

For more information about the study, email Dr. Tracy Hellem at tracy.hellem1@montana.edu or call her at 406-243-2110 or call her research coordinator, Brandon Dodd, at 281-803-9174.

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