How Drug Abuse Causes Memory Loss

The negative effects of drugs and alcohol on memory are well documented. As one of the brain’s cognitive functions, memory plays a key role in acquiring knowledge and understanding. When memory is compromised, so are other cognitive functions, including learning, language, and comprehension.

Constant drug abuse affects the brain as a whole, changing its chemical makeup as it continues. Many individuals can recover from a substance use disorder, but may not regain their brain functionality even after they stop abusing drugs. It’s imperative to get help at the first signs of drug abuse to reduce long-term effects. 

Drug abuse can hurt memory; however, there are certain drugs that cause memory loss short-term and long-term. As using drugs and memory loss have a strong relationship people should seek out treatment from Harmony Place to mitigate any long-term effects.

Drugs and Memory Loss 

There are two types of memory: short-term (also called working memory) and long-term. Working memory acts as a temporary scratchpad, allowing us to recall information that can be used immediately for a short time. Examples of working memory include recalling a handful of items we need from the supermarket, or where we parked our car.

In contrast, long-term memory extends back throughout our lives. Memorable events from childhood are stored in long-term memory, along with things we learned in school, or skills such as tying our shoes.

Hundreds of studies have shown a link between using drugs and memory loss. While research has demonstrated varying results, even within categories of drugs studied, virtually all studies have found that mood-changing and mind-altering drugs do affect memory, particularly with long-term use.

How Alcohol is a Drug that Causes Memory Loss

drugs and memory loss

Many drugs, most notably alcohol, produce two specific types of memory loss: brownouts (aka greyouts) and blackouts. A brownout is a fragmented type of memory loss. It’s in which we temporarily forget events that happened while drinking until someone or something prompts us to remember. We then recall, in hazy detail, what we did while drunk. This is why these are known as partial blackouts. 

A full blackout, on the other hand, results from particularly heavy drinking, which prevents the brain from completing the process of forming memories. When we experience a blackout, we have no recollection of what happened, and can’t be prodded to remember. The events that transpired are forever lost to us. These are known as en bloc blackouts. 

The Science Behind Alcohol and Temporary Memory Loss

When individuals experience a blackout or partial blackout (brownout or greyout), it’s because alcohol disrupts the process of memory encoding. There is a process that happens within the brain in order to store memories. It begins with sensory memory, or input. From there, transfer encoding from input to short-term memory occurs. 

There are three stages that happen from input to memory which are: 

  1. Encoding
  2. Storage
  3. Retrieval 

When an individual blacks out, it’s because alcohol interferes with the second stage of forming a memory, aka storage. It particularly affects the transfer encoding and storage stages between short and long-term memory. Research shows that individuals that have a BAC high enough to experience a blackout can recall information shortly after they have the sensory input. Shortly after, they can’t, experiencing partial to complete memory loss about events that transpired prior to drinking. 

The hippocampus is one of the main portions of the brain that has to do with forming memories. There are cells that fire off within the hippocampus that indicate the process of memory formation. One study found that these cells didn’t fire off properly when the subjects were severely intoxicated. While there are multiple parts of the brain involved in memory formation, impeding hippocampus function is likely the culprit for alcohol-induced amnesia. 

How Alcohol Causes Long-Term Memory Loss 

In Those Who Abuse Alcohol Frequently 

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a health disorder that can happen after continuous, excessive alcohol abuse. Many scientists believe there are different stages of the syndrome, the Wernicke encephalopathy stage and the Korsakoff syndrome stage. During the Wernicke stage, people experience acute memory loss. If they continue to drink excessively, it can result in long-term memory impairment (Korsakoff stage). 

Long-term alcohol abuse can cause a vitamin deficiency in multiple respects. Thiamine deficiency is one of them, which can result in permanent memory loss. Even if a person stops drinking alcohol, they still may never regain the ability to retrieve and store memories correctly. Even though this is the case for some, alcohol abuse treatment at a reputable substance abuse treatment center can help reverse the effects. 

In the Children of Parents with Alcohol Use Disorder 

Drug abuse affects more than the individual suffering from an alcohol use disorder. If mothers-to-be drink while pregnant they can cause their child to have cognitive impairments. One of these impairments is difficulty forming memories. Children whose mothers drank while pregnant often have differently-shaped brains than their peers. 

Children affected by prenatal drinking often have lighter a hippocampus in terms of volume. Not only does this affect their memory for the rest of their lives, especially in regards to short-term memory, but also impairs their ability to learn forever. Thus, alcohol abuse affects the memory of both parent and child. 

How Benzodiazepines are Drugs that Cause Memory Loss 

Other drugs, including benzodiazepines, interfere with the transfer of information from short-term to long-term memory. For this reason, benzodiazepines are often used as anesthesia for medical procedures: They cause us to forget pain and discomfort. Sleeping pills, known as Z drugs, blunt memory in a similar way. 

Long-Term Use of Benzodiazepines and Memory Loss 

One study found that long-term use of benzodiazepines (benzos) significantly increased the chances of dementia. When people have dementia, it can impede memory recall and formation as well as thinking in general. Dementia is actually a series of conditions. Some people have all the symptoms of it while some don’t. 

The study mentioned before didn’t specifically use participants who engaged in benzo abuse. Yet, the fact that people who used benzodiazepines, even with a prescription, still experienced higher rates of dementia is telling. People who engage in long-term benzo abuse will likely, if not more so, be met with memory loss if they don’t get help. 

How Opioids are Drugs that Cause Memory Loss 

Opioids also impair both short and long-term memory by inhibiting our perception of pain within the central nervous system and dulling our reaction to it. The Yale School of Medicine examined individuals who overdosed on opiates and suffered amnesia as a result. What they found was that there was swelling in the cerebellum and hippocampus. 

In general, brain swelling can result in memory loss. Drug-induced brain swelling makes permanent memory loss and the ability to form memories overall even more likely. Opioid abuse can result in other cognitive disabilities down the line without medical intervention. 

How Marijuana is a Drug that Causes Memory Loss 

Studies on the effects of THC, the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana, have been performed on rats. THC changes the way the hippocampus region of the brain, where memories are formed, processes information. Many studies suggest marijuana’s effect on memory may depend on the age at which we begin using it. Early exposure to marijuana can inhibit learning and memory later in life.

Marijuana and Memory Loss in Youth 

While all studies don’t reach the same conclusion about memory loss and marijuana abuse, one of the reasons is because subjects end up using multiple substances aside. In rats, one study found that marijuana use in vitro, shortly after birth, and in adolescence affected memory. It also increased the chances that they would self-medicate with other drugs. 

Other studies have come to similar conclusions. Researchers found that adolescents who used marijuana had less verbal memory skills than peers who did not. As the effects of permanent memory loss and marijuana abuse are still in the process of being recorded and confirmed, it’s safe to say it’s certainly not good for the brain. 

Seek Freedom from Drugs that Cause Memory Loss 

recovering from drugs that cause memory loss

If you or some you love is abusing drugs or alcohol, seek help immediately. Treatment is available, and you are not alone. When seeking a private residential treatment program, choose the program that has the highest accreditation, focuses on personalized care, and offers the greatest luxury accommodations. Harmony Place provides a full continuum of treatment options, from detox to transitional living. 

We have a personalized plan for everyone who steps through our doors, ensuring the best results for each patient. Plus, each plan includes how alumni can continue their promise of lifelong sobriety through our aftercare programs. We give patients all the tools they need to succeed, regardless of where they’re at in recovery. Hence, waiting to get help for a substance use disorder is a mistake and unnecessary. Here at Harmony Place, we have the right plan for you as soon as you start treatment. For a private consultation and more information, call us today.