Effects of Drugs and Alcohol on the Brain: Causes of Brain Damage

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  • Brain Damage Caused by Drug and Alcohol Use
  • Alcohol, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, and Alcoholic Dementia
  • Stimulants and Anhedonia (The Inability to Feel Pleasure)
  • Marijuana and Psychosis
  • Hallucinogens and Persisting Perception Disorder
  • Opioids, Hypoxia, and the Brain
  • Is Brain Damage Permanent or Transient?
  • Prognosis for Recovery: Is Brain Damage Reversible?
  • Treating Brain Damage from Drug and Alcohol Abuse
man with alcohol dependency One of the side effects of drug and alcohol abuse that is not well known is brain damage and injury. Most publicized is the potential for acute damage due to overdose or even damage to other organs in the body, such as liver damage from alcohol abuse or heart damage from use of stimulants. These effects are certainly alarming, and provide plenty of motivation for avoiding, and treating, drug abuse and addiction.

Nevertheless, considering that the key action of psychoactive substances is on the brain, it is no surprise that long-term use of drugs or alcohol can result in brain injury. The debilitating and potentially life-threatening results warrant a further understanding of exactly what the risks are, whether or not they can be prevented or reversed, and how to treat them.

Brain Damage Caused by Drug and Alcohol Use

Drugs and alcohol have a number of effects on the brain, including:

  • Disruption of nutrients needed by brain tissue
  • Direct damage, injury, and death of brain cells, including neurotransmitter receptors
  • Alterations to brain chemical concentrations, including neurotransmitters and hormones
  • Deprivation of oxygen to brain tissue

Different substances induce these effects to different degrees, including the specific drugs discussed below.

Alcohol, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, and Alcoholic Dementia

One of the ways that substance abuse can result in brain damage is by interfering in the use of nutrients required to maintain brain chemistry. An example of this occurs with alcohol abuse, which can result in thiamine deficiency. Thiamine, one of the B vitamins, is not able to be produced by the body, which means it must be ingested because it is required by nearly all the tissues in the body, including the liver, heart, and brain. However, alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to absorb thiamine, resulting in deficiency.

As described in an article from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, this thiamine deficiency can result in brain injury that includes a combination of Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. This debilitating and potentially deadly neurological condition causes nerve paralysis and mental confusion, as well as an inability to coordinate muscle movement. The thiamine deficiency can also cause brain cell damage that results in incapacitating dementia.

Stimulants and Anhedonia (The Inability to Feel Pleasure)

Stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine have direct action on dopamine and its receptors in the brain, reducing the uptake of the neurotransmitter, which is the source of the extreme euphoria these drugs can cause. However, another result of this action is that, over time, the dopamine receptor cells in the brain can be damaged or even die off, as described in a study from the European Journal of Pharmacology. The result of this brain damage is a condition called anhedonia, which is a diminished ability, or even lack of ability, to feel pleasure if the drug is not being used.

Because this is the result of actual cell death, the lack of ability to feel pleasure can last long after use of the drug is stopped. The follow-up result then can be deep depression, including suicidal thoughts and self-destructive actions. However, with treatment and continued abstinence from the substance, dopamine receptors and capabilities can repair and return to some function.

Marijuana and Psychosis

The development of psychosis has been noted in some individuals who use marijuana regularly; however, the mechanisms through which this happens are not fully understood. Through some research, speculation has risen that this may only occur in people who already have a predisposition toward schizophrenia or other conditions. However, this may not be the whole story.

Many studies have demonstrated a potential lack of damage to the brain due to cannabis use. However, a study discussed by the Schizophrenia Research Institute has found that the hippocampus and amygdala can experience reduction in size due to long-term marijuana use. These two parts of the brain are implicated in schizophrenia.

Hallucinogens and Persisting Perception Disorder

hallucinogens effects The journal Psychopharmacology discusses just one incident of hallucinogen persisting perception disorder, a condition that appears to affect visual perception, resulting in visual hallucinations or perceptions, such as:

  • Snow (similar to static on a television channel)
  • Flashbacks
  • Echoes
  • Visual distortion

While the causes of this condition are not fully understood, there are multiple hypotheses about it, including one that optic nerve damage results in inflammation or that an enzyme that supports visual perception is disrupted. Whatever the case, this condition can persist many years after hallucinogen use is stopped.

Opioids, Hypoxia, and the Brain

Depressants like opioids cause suppression of breathing, which in turn can result in decreased blood oxygen concentrations. This can result in a wide range of damage, including oxygen deprivation to the brain. As explained by the National Library of Medicine, lack of oxygen to the brain can directly result in brain cell death and quickly lead to coma.

Hypoxia is often an acute condition brought on by opioid overdose, but it can also accumulate over years of abuse of these drugs, resulting in diminished oxygen to the brain that causes slow-developing damage over time.

Is Brain Damage Permanent or Transient?

Depending on the type of damage, it may be possible to reverse the damage caused by drug or alcohol abuse. By reintroducing missing nutrients or promoting reestablishment of chemical pathways in the brain, early-stage damage can be reversed or at least somewhat repaired. However, in cases of extensive cell death or damage, reversal may not be possible.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse provides hope, noting that treatment and technology advances are helping to improve the chances that lost functions can be recovered after substance abuse is stopped. This includes abilities to reduce cravings that make a person more likely to relapse to substance use and continue contributing to further damage.

Prognosis for Recovery: Is Brain Damage Reversible?

The best chance for recovery or reversal depends on intervention as early as possible. Recognizing that substance abuse is occurring is essential to getting on this path. Signs of brain damage due to substance abuse may include:

  • Delayed reactions
  • Diminished cognitive capabilities
  • Memory lapses or blackouts
  • Loss of physical coordination
  • Hallucinations
  • Dementia

If these signs are recognized, getting help as quickly as possible can provide the nutritional and other support that can enable the brain and body to recover from the issues.

Treating Brain Damage from Drug and Alcohol Abuse

professional treatment for brain damageWhen substance abuse is occurring, it can be hard to tell the extent to which damage to the brain and body has progressed. However, substance abuse treatment professionals can help to diagnose the extent of the problem and determine the specific treatment plan that is most likely to help the individual get on the path to healing the damage.

Addiction has no cure, and in some cases, the damage from abuse of psychoactive substances may not be fully repairable. However, professional, research-based treatment programs provide the most current, demonstrated abilities to treat and manage the issues that arise from addiction. With this type of intervention, the individual has an improved chance of returning to a productive life, along with the ability to manage long-term recovery. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction and are not sure where to begin, give us a call or verify if insurance can cover all or part of the cost of treatment.


Last Updated on June 15, 2021
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