Animal data indicate that methamphetamine can damage striatal dopamine terminals. Efforts to document dopamine neuron damage in living brain of methamphetamine users have focused on the binding of [(11)C]dihydrotetrabenazine (DTBZ), a vesicular monoamine transporter (VMAT2) positron emission tomography (PET) radioligand, as a stable dopamine neuron biomarker. Previous PET data report a slight decrease in striatal [(11)C]DTBZ binding in human methamphetamine users after prolonged (mean, 3 years) abstinence, suggesting that the reduction would likely be substantial in early abstinence. We measured striatal VMAT2 binding in 16 recently withdrawn (mean, 19 d; range, 1-90 d) methamphetamine users and in 14 healthy matched-control subjects during a PET scan with (+)[(11)C]DTBZ. Unexpectedly, striatal (+)[(11)C]DTBZ binding was increased in methamphetamine users relative to controls (+22%, caudate; +12%, putamen; +11%, ventral striatum). Increased (+)[(11)C]DTBZ binding in caudate was most marked in methamphetamine users abstinent for 1-3 d (+41%), relative to the 7-21 d (+15%) and >21 d (+9%) groups. Above-normal VMAT2 binding in some drug users suggests that any toxic effect of methamphetamine on dopamine neurons might be masked by an increased (+)[(11)C]DTBZ binding and that VMAT2 radioligand binding might not be, as is generally assumed, a "stable" index of dopamine neuron integrity in vivo. One potential explanation for increased (+)[(11)C]DTBZ binding is that VMAT2 binding is sensitive to changes in vesicular dopamine storage levels, presumably low in drug users. If correct, (+)[(11)C]DTBZ might be a useful imaging probe to correlate changes in brain dopamine stores and behavior in users of methamphetamine.
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