Opioids are generally prescribed by doctors for acute and chronic pain. These drugs include natural opiates such as morphine and codeine. More recently, the popular semi or fully synthetic opioids have become commonly abused prescribed and street drugs. These include hydrocodone, oxycodone, fentanyl, tramadol, and methadone.
Recently, reports of cases of amnesia have been found in opioid users and have come as a surprise to medical professionals. Of course, there are quite a few other adverse side effects to using and abusing opioids. These include: increased tolerance requiring higher doses, physical dependence, drug addiction, drowsiness, vomiting, itching, respiratory depression, and (although it seems counter-intuitive) increased pain.
Since the 1990s, opioids have been prescribed in record numbers and have increased even more over time. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Sales of prescription opioids in the U.S. nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2014, but there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain Americans report. During this time period, prescription opioid overdose deaths increased similarly.”
Recent Reported Cases of Amnesia Due to Opioid Use
In 2016, an epidemiologist in Massachusetts began noticing a disturbing pattern in some of his patients. They were reporting memory loss, which is not extremely uncommon in opioid abusers. Between 2012 and 2016, 14 cases like this were reported. Of the patients in these cases, says the CDC, “A history of substance use disorder was documented in 13 of 14 patients; the remaining patient tested positive for opiates and cocaine at the time of initial evaluation. The other patient, who tested positive for cocaine, also tested positive for opiates, amphetamines, and benzodiazepines, none of which were being prescribed at the time. Overall, 12 of 14 patients had a history of opioid use, and eight tested positive for opiates on routine toxicology screening.”
Here’s What Doctors Found When They Took a Closer Look
The MRI results however, were remarkable. The doctor, Alfred DeMaria, Jr. noted abnormal MRI results, showing reduced blood flow to the hippocampi, bilaterally. That means in both sides of the brain, these two pieces of tissue were not receiving the proper blood flow. The hippocampus is a small organ in the brain’s temporal lobe. It’s important for the function of the body’s limbic system, and it is the part of the brain associated with long-term memory, emotional regulation and spatial navigation.
The Atlantic’s article on the subject suggests, “That’s why DeMaria fears the effect on the hippocampus may be specific to the opioid that those patients took. Synthetic opioids like fentanyl have fueled the opioid epidemic in the U.S. Perhaps a new synthetic drug can specifically affect the neurochemistry of neurons in the hippocampus.”
Due to the continued abuse of opioids in the U.S., health care professionals and government agencies are taking note of this recent increase of amnesia cases and are looking to discover the reasons it is occurring to see if it’s an emerging trend.
Prescribed Opioids Are Not the Only Drugs Impacting Users This Way
This doesn’t just affect prescription users. As the CDC said, most of the 14 patients had a history of drug abuse – some prescribed and some not. Memory loss may be more common than is reported because many users don’t realize it is happening in the first place.
Memory loss is not specific to opioid use, either. A study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology by UK researchers posits that ecstasy use over time can affect even abstinent users, “Recently, it was supposed that these deficits are an expression of a temporal or rather hippocampal dysfunction caused by the serotonergic neurotoxicity of MDMA. The aim of this study is to examine the memory deficits of MDMA users neuropsychologically in order to evaluate the role of different brain regions. Nineteen male abstinent MDMA users, 19 male abstinent cannabis users and 19 male drug-naive control subjects were examined with a German version of the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test (RAVLT). MDMA users showed widespread and marked verbal memory deficits.” Again, the role of the hippocampus is emphasized here. As more studies try to explore drug use and effects on the brain, the more clear the picture will become.
What to Do if You Believe You or Someone You Know is Experiencing Memory Loss Due to Drug Use
Getting help is always the answer, and a great rehab program is the KEY to long-term sobriety. Continuing to live through possible memory loss can prove dangerous and irresponsible. Your work life will suffer if you are unable to remember tasks, facts and protocols. Your driving may become inhibited. Current users can also suffer from blackouts that can put them in serious and unsafe situations that can drive them deeper into addiction.
Contact your healthcare provider or a reputable drug and alcohol rehabilitation center to get the help you need. Warnings from local, health professionals are just one of many signs that it’s time to get help. Drug users are not alone in their addiction as many others experience the same adverse side effects. Short term and prolonged memory loss are not worthwhile risks, and due to the questionable nature of the memory loss, no one can be sure how greatly it can impact lives in the future for rehabilitated users.