Renaissance Ranch

Drug Abuse and Its Impact on Memory Loss

Apr 6, 2021

Substance use alters the brain completely. From rewiring reward systems to exacerbating the symptoms of mental health disorders, substance abuse can cause long-term damaging effects. What some might not realize is the potential effects on cognition and memory as well.

While more research still needs to be done, there is solid evidence that substances like alcohol, nicotine, MDMA, ecstasy, methamphetamines, cocaine, and heroin can all affect different parts of the brain that control problem solving, planning, retaining knowledge, and judgment.

The chronic use of some substances, such as benzodiazepine, can also increase the possibility of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease later in life. The potential effects of substance use on our cognition and memory may seem scary, but thankfully some of these effects are not permanent. After abstinence, memory and other cognitive functions can improve and be restored over time.

The Parts Of The Brain That Control Memory

The brain is a complex organism with many important functions, from processing senses and emotions to learning new things, walking, and even controlling breathing. A large portion of the brain is dedicated to memory. The cerebrum, which makes up eighty percent of your brain, controls thinking, problem-solving, and adapting behaviors.

The cerebrum is split into lobes that control different behaviors, but the ones that regulate memory are the frontal lobes, parietal lobes, and temporal lobes. The frontal lobes are in charge of higher-order thinking such as planning, organizing, reasoning, and adapting to our environment. The parietal lobes control skills such as reading and math. The temporal lobes regulate learning and memory as well as language.

Inside these lobes are parts of the brain that control memory, which include the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. The hippocampus, located in the temporal lobe, regulates long-term memory. The prefrontal cortex regulates short-term memory, also known as working memory. This is the type of memory that helps you remember someone’s phone number as they give it to you or remember the sentence you just read so that the next sentence makes sense.

Substance use can affect many of these parts of the brain, including the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, by changing how the brain processes reward.

There Are Two Stages Of Addiction

When you begin using substances, addiction slowly begins to start. The first stage of addiction begins when the substance use is increasingly chronic and uncontrolled. This is when the brain’s reward system starts to become deregulated. The substances release dopamine, producing intense feelings that motivate your brain to want to use more.

Memory loss doesn’t occur right away. However, the longer someone uses, the more likely they are to enter the second stage of addiction. This stage leads to withdrawal symptoms in early abstinence, vulnerability to relapse, and changes in decision making.

Each Drug Impacts The Brain Differently

Substances can affect cognitive function in a number of ways, but not every drug affects your brain the exact same way. Chronic amphetamine and heroin users often have deficits in verbal fluency, planning, and pattern recognition. Excessive amounts of alcohol can cause blackouts and memory lapses. Methamphetamines can cause memory loss. And misused opioids can even damage the frontal lobe during an overdose.

Drugs and alcohol rewire the structure of your brain by shifting reward and learning systems. Your brain’s response to cues from substances that normally serve to shape survival behaviors is changed, now associating that drug with things the brain “needs” despite the destruction it causes. As a result, your brain struggles to adapt to behaviors that support abstinence from substance use.

Withdrawal And Its Temporary Effects On Memory

In the second stage of addiction, people who use are more likely to experience symptoms of withdrawal once they stop using. The type of symptoms will depend on the substance, but one thing that is common is the temporary effect on cognition.

Cocaine and opioid withdrawal can cause symptoms related to lapse in cognitive flexibility. Amphetamines, cannabis, and alcohol withdrawal can cause deficits in attention. Amphetamine withdrawal symptoms can also cause issues with impulse control, making relapse more likely. Nicotine withdrawal can affect working memory and declarative learning.

Thankfully, most of these effects are temporary. However, there are some substances that can cause long-term cognitive decline. For example, studies have shown that people with a past history of smoking have lower cognitive speed than non-smokers, and that speed declined nearly twice as much over five years. In a study on the use of methamphetamines and their effect on neuropsychological tasks, the users’ scores increased after 12-17 months of abstinence. However, other neuropsychological issues remained.

Seek Help Today

Drug abuse can affect the brain in a myriad of ways by rewiring the brain. While more research is needed, there is plenty of evidence that proves substance use can have both temporary and lasting effects on cognition and memory. The only way to begin reversing these negative effects is to stop using — and that’s where we come in to help.

Substance use can cause lapses in both short-term and long-term memory, making it difficult to follow directions, recall personal memories, complete tasks, and much more. Memory is so essential to the brain that a majority of brain use is dedicated to cognitive function. The conditions that substance use creates make it difficult to remain abstinent on your own because the mind rewires its natural response to reward. Over time, it becomes the same response that the brain normally reserves for survival. Many withdrawal symptoms for various substances also include lapses in cognitive function, making quitting that much more difficult. Renaissance Ranch is here to help you recover so you can begin to reverse many of these neurological effects. Don’t wait. To learn more about our programs, call us today at (801) 308-8898.