04/25/2011 12:00 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2011

Fruit Flies On Meth: New Study Indicates Drug Has 'Perfect Storm' Effect On Body

What happens when fruit flies take meth?

Scientists at the University of Illinois sought to answer that question in the hopes of learning more about the powerful drug's effects on the human body.

Most methamphetamine studies focus on how the brain responds to its influence. But this recent experiment examined instead how meth can affect the entire body's molecular makeup.

Fruit flies provide the ideal test subjects, said lead researcher Barry Pittendrigh, a U of I entomology professor. "They're small, we can work with the whole organism and then look at the great diversity of tissues that are being impacted."

The results weren't pretty. "One could almost call meth a perfect storm toxin because it does so much damage to so many different tissues in the body," Pittendrigh said.

The study showed meth wreaking widespread havoc on the fruit flies' bodies, reports:

The researchers found that meth exposure influenced molecular pathways associated with energy generation, sugar metabolism, sperm cell formation, cell structure, hormones, skeletal muscle and cardiac muscles. The analysis also identified several new molecular players and unusual disruptions of normal cellular events that occur in response to meth, though the authors acknowledge that further work is required to validate the role of these pathways in response to meth.

In total, the scientists discovered 34 changes in the molecular processes of the fruit flies' cells.

This may explain why heavy meth users often undergo extreme changes to their physical appearances, including advanced aging, as these before-and-after images from Portland, Ore., illustrate (warning: graphic content).

Another key finding: cells exposed to meth may nourish themselves in a similar manner to cancer cells. While normal, healthy cells use oxygen to break down stored energy, cancer cells use glycosis, a quick and wasteful process in which glucose, a simple sugar that aides metabolism, replaces the oxygen.

The meth-induced fruit flies that ingested trehalose, a type of sugar insects metabolize, lived longer than those that didn't, the researchers observed. Similarly, heavy meth users often crave sugary beverages and foods. The study's findings suggest meth users' taste for sugar may indicate a biological response to the drug -- much like cancer patients, sugar becomes a means for their cells' survival.

However, Pittendrigh was quick to emphasize the preliminary nature of his findings. "We do know that people who are methamphetamine addicts oftentimes take in large amounts of sugary drinks, so that was an interesting observation," he said. "But whether or not these things turn out to be related is a question for future research."

For more information, read the entire study on