Researcher Finds Challenges in Study Involving Methamphetamine

By Linda Haymes

“Use meth?”

UAMS is seeking those who use methamphetamine and are not currently trying to stop in order to determine exactly how methamphetamine affects the human body.

“Every emergency department physician knows that people who have used meth get really stressed out and agitated in the Emergency Department,” said Michael Wilson, M.D., an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at UAMS. “We’re trying to understand what happens inside the mind of a person who uses meth that makes them harder to treat and understand.”

Wilson believes meth changes or alters the system in the body that responds to stress. He is working to determine what changed, what is not working and how to restore it.

Just as pneumonia is a lung disease that requires exposure to contract, drug abuse is a brain disorder that requires the right situations of environment to exist, Wilson said. There are no effective, FDA-approved treatments for meth, and researchers are only beginning to understand how it affects the brain.

“We don’t have that deep an understanding of methamphetamine yet, but we are working on it,” Wilson said. “You can’t treat a disease until you better understand it. It is like a mechanic trying to fix something wrong with a car without opening up the hood. We’re trying to open up the hood and figure out what’s going on in there.”

Wilson collaborated with expert substance abuse researchers in the UAMS Psychiatric Research Institute to launch the research trial, “Stress in Meth” last September. The study examines how people who use meth respond to stress in emergency departments in contrast to those who do not use the drug. It is currently the only study of its kind in the world.

“UAMS is unfortunately the perfect place to do this research because meth use is the No. 1 cause of drug-related deaths in Arkansas,” Wilson said. “In much of the rest of the country, it’s opioids such as fentanyl, but here it’s meth. I am very proud of UAMS that they are leading the charge to change this.”

The study will include 30 volunteers, all of whom have visited an emergency department at least once. Twenty of the volunteers will have experience with meth, and the other 10 consider themselves to be healthy and have not used the drug.

Through the study, Wilson is studying how meth changes the body’s response to stress, particularly in the emergency room. He is also examining how people who use meth respond to stressors in a simulated ED setting.

Once we figure out how the stress system has changed, the next step is to figure out how to treat it, he said.

“We’re also trying to draw attention to a terrible epidemic in Arkansas, which was made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Wilson said.

“It is extremely prevalent and dangerous,” he said of meth use. “We are trying to figure out how we can help folks who use meth to stop doing so.”

Participants need to be between the ages of 21 and 55 years old who have used meth in the past six months, are not currently seeking treatment for meth use and have visited the emergency department at least once, either as a patient or visitor. The study includes three 3-hour visits at UAMS, including experiencing a simulated experience of being in an emergency department. Those interested in taking part in it, should call 501-570-6362. All calls are confidential.

Ten people who do not have experience with meth or other drugs are also needed.

Wilson is publicizing the study through local print and broadcast news sources as well as social media, including Facebook and Twitter.

The subject matter sometimes makes it a hard sell, though.

“We’ve had good success but it’s been less than perfect,” Wilson said. “Some people think what we’re doing is a little weird.”

So far, 10 participants who currently use meth have joined the study.

“These folks are courageous to come forward in the hope that their experience is going to help themselves and others to better understand what meth does to the body and brain,” Wilson said.

Wilson turned to social media last October to try to spread the word through a Facebook page.

Some of the Facebook posts went viral, but the responses from the public proved to be challenging. Wilson said most people think it must be the police trying to trap them. Others believe it is a joke.

“We’ve gotten hundreds of supportive responses, but we also got several ‘Nice try, Little Rock Police Department,” he said. “Or they think we must be kidding and so make inappropriate postings and jokes. That really shows how sensitive a topic this is.”

A few others worry the study will hurt those taking part in it.

“I didn’t go to medical school for all those years to harm people.” Wilson said. “We are trying to help the patients of tomorrow. I realize what we are doing is a little puzzling, but we are doing it because we really believe that, in the long term, it will help.

“Everything participants share with those conducting the study remains confidential,” Wilson said. He said the goal is to improve the Emergency Department for those who have mental health issues and to draw attention to the epidemic in Arkansas and nationwide.

“At the peak of the epidemic in May last year, drug overdose deaths increased 60% nationally compared to the prior year. Many people adopted all kinds of unhealthy behaviors during the COVID pandemic,” Wilson said. “However, this trend is alarming. Right now, more Americans die every year of overdoses than died in the Vietnam War.”

Wilson said he hopes that the study helps more people learn about the effects of meth.

“Most of the participants are here because they want to share their experiences with others and help someone else,” he said. “Really, it’s the city of Little Rock and state of Arkansas that will ultimately benefit from this study.”