Common Neurological Risks of Drug Abuse
Brain Damage From Drugs
While substance misuse may cause a user to feel short-lived euphoria or impart a sense of temporary wellbeing, the adverse effects of drugs can be dangerous and, in some instances, may lead to permanent brain damage. Chronic drug and alcohol abuse is associated with a number of severe neurological effects, some of which may be fatal.
Stimulants & The Brain
Central nervous system (CNS) stimulants, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, speed up brain activity, blood pressure, and heart rate.1,2 Stimulant users may experience strokes as a result of constricted blood vessels and elevated blood pressure, which may result in sudden death.1,2
Not all stimulant drugs are the same, however; each has unique neurological risks associated with its use.
Methamphetamine (“meth”) can cause permanent damage to certain brain cells, particularly those involved with dopaminergic chemical signaling.3 Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter involved in the reward pathways of the brain, and when an individual abuses meth long term, dopamine levels may decrease. Some studies have demonstrated an association between cumulative damage to the dopaminergic system and an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease.18 Research from the University of Utah found that meth users were 3 times more likely than non-illicit drug users to develop Parkinson’s disease, and that the risk may be higher for women.4
Furthermore, research has revealed that abusing methamphetamine, as well its chemical cousin MDMA (“ecstasy”), can have neurological consequences similar to those of a traumatic brain injury (TBI).5 Traumatic brain injuries are often the result of a sudden blow to the head or an object piercing the brain through the skull.6
Meth and TBI both cause protein changes in the brain that can lead to subsequent cell death and brain inflammation.5 Research suggests that neurological damage associated with methamphetamine abuse may not always be reversible, even with sustained abstinence.5
Chronic cocaine use can cause seizures.7
Besides cardiac arrest, seizures are one of the leading causes of cocaine-related deaths in users.7 Long-term cocaine abuse appears to cause a process known as “kindling,” in which smaller and smaller doses taken over time induce the same or more severe negative effects, such as seizures.8
“Sensitization” may also occur in those suffering with chronic psychiatric disorders. Sensitization refers to a state in which psychotic symptoms such as paranoia worsen with continued cocaine use.
Alcohol & The Brain
Chronic alcohol consumption, particularly when combined with poor nutrition, can lead to neurologic damage over time. It is common for someone afflicted with alcoholism to be deficient in many vital vitamins, including vitamin B1, or thiamine—an essential nutrient found in meat, poultry, whole grain cereals, peas, soybeans, and nuts. As many as 80% of people who are addicted to alcohol do not get enough thiamine in their diets.9
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which consists of Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis (or Korsakoff’s syndrome), is a grave neurologic condition caused by a lack of vitamin B1. The former is a short-lived condition, while the latter is enduring and disabling.9
The symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy are:9,10
- Drooping eyelids.
- Paralysis of the nerves controlling the eye.
- Problems with coordination.
- Involuntary eye movements.
- Double vision.
Up to 90% of those with Wernicke’s encephalopathy eventually develop Korsakoff’s psychosis,9 which is characterized by the following symptoms:9,10
- Coordination problems.
- Trouble walking.
- Problems with learning.
- Chronic memory issues.
- Confabulation (unintentional fabrication of stories).
Korsakoff’s psychosis interferes with a person’s ability to form new memories.9 Individuals with this condition are often easily frustrated by the problems that arise from forgetting conversations and events that have just occurred.9
Opioids & The Brain
- Stress management.
- Behavior regulation.
- Ability to make decisions.
Although more research is necessary to confirm the negative impacts of long-term opioid abuse, data suggests that chronic heroin or painkiller use alters the function and structure of the brain, leading to issues with:12
- Impulse control.
- Affect or emotional regulation.
- Motivational and reward functioning.
Further, opioids cause severe respiratory depression—slowed or arrested breathing which can lead to an insufficient supply of oxygen to the brain. Over time, the limited oxygen flow can lead to irreversible brain damage.13
Inhalants & The Brain
Inhalants, which often are easily accessible household items, can cause a range of neurotoxic effects when abused. Most notably, sniffing or huffing inhalants can lead to seizures and/or a coma.14 Sudden sniffing death syndrome, in which irregular heart rate causes fatal heart failure, may occur within minutes of a single use.
Since inhalants have different chemical components, they will vary in terms of the damage they can cause. For example, toluene or naphthalene can harm the myelin sheath of nerve fibers, which helps to conduct impulses.14 Nerve damage caused by inhalants is clinically similar to that suffered by patients afflicted with multiple sclerosis,14 which is a central nervous system disease characterized by:15
- Coordination and balance problems.
- Weakness in limbs.
- Blurred vision.
- Speech impediments.
- Issues with attention, memory, and concentration.
Chronic inhalant abuse can lead to problems with:14
Drugs and the Brain’s Reward Pathways
The mesolimbic dopamine system is the brain’s reward pathway and is an important circuit that connects a number of different structures and promotes motivation and survival.16 Dopaminergic cells release dopamine in response to natural rewards—such as engaging in sex, social interactions, and eating food—which positively reinforces these behaviors.16 Dopamine also communicates with the memory centers of the brain, telling them to store the pleasurable feelings associated with an activity so that it can be repeated later on.16
Drugs hijack the brain’s reward pathway. When someone abuses a drug, an excessive amount of dopamine is released into the synapse, leading to euphoria. Over time, the brain begins to adapt to the overflow of dopamine by both decreasing the amount of dopamine receptors at the synapse and becoming more efficient at transporting or clearing dopamine from the synapse.17 This means that without the drug, a substance user will experience less pleasure from natural rewards.
Credit: National Institute on Drug Abuse
Finding Help for Substance Misuse and Addiction
If you or a loved one is struggling with substance misuse or addiction, it’s important to know that there is help available. American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading provider of addiction treatment programs and has trusted rehab facilities throughout the United States. AAC operates a 24/7 addiction helpline. Our compassionate staff can answer questions you have about how addiction affects you, connect you with suitable rehab facilities, and verify your insurance benefits. Don’t delay getting better. Please call us free at to get started.
Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment Levels of Care
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