Substance abuse can negatively affect the brain in numerous ways. The risks associated with use vary from person to person and can range in severity depending on the substance used. Almost all mind and mood-altering substances pose some risk to physical and mental health, but some can carry more damaging consequences. Neurological damage is associated with nearly all drugs or alcohol, and chronic use can lead to irreversible brain damage. This risk is higher among adolescents and young adults because their brain is still developing and forming vital connections. Substance abuse during this critical stage can lead to permanent rewiring and potentially life-long consequences.
The Common Neurological Risks of Drug Use
Although many are aware that substance abuse can cause numerous negative side effects, the short-lived euphoria and cravings can make it difficult to cease use. The short- and long-term side effects can vary from person to person, but over time, they begin to evolve and become more threatening as a person’s patterns and addiction changes. While some of the neurological risks associated with use are rather mild, others can be severe and life-threatening. Over time, frequent substance abuse can lead to the development of impairments that may negatively affect employment, relationships, and financial situations.
How Different Drugs Damage Your Brain
Different substances will have different impacts on the body and the way it functions. The severity of side effects varies depending on factors such as amount used, frequency of use, potency of the substance, and whether or not it is mixed with another substance. Overall, drug and alcohol use can impair motor functions, decision-making and problem-solving abilities, as well as reduce inhibitions. Some substances can produce additional side effects that may be unique. These include:
- Alcohol: Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances across the globe. As a legal substance, it is easier to obtain than many illicit substances, and its misuse has been normalized, and in some cases even glamorized. Those with chronic alcoholism tend to have vitamin deficiencies which can lead to the development of numerous conditions. Korsakoff’s Syndrome and Wernicke’s encephalopathy often develop as a result of vitamin deficiencies. Symptoms include drooping eyes, confusion, paralysis of nerves controlling the eyes, problems with coordination, involuntary eye movements, double vision, trouble walking, chronic memory problems, and hallucinations. Those who develop these conditions often have trouble forming new memories and easily forget conversations or events that recently occurred.
- Opioids: Opioid abuse is a growing problem, particularly in the United States. With the overprescribing of painkillers, more people in the United States struggle with opioid addiction than ever before. Vicodin, Percocet, and oxycodone are some of the most popularly abused prescription painkillers. Heroin also falls under the opioid class. Research proves that heroin abuse can cause white matter in the brain to deteriorate over time. This interferes with stress management, the ability to make decisions, and the ability to regulate one’s own behaviors. Chronic heroin or painkiller abuse can lead to numerous neurological issues such as impulse control, emotional regulation, and motivation. Many also experience severe respiratory depression, which can lead to an insufficient supply of oxygen to the brain. Over time, this can cause irreversible brain damage.
- Methamphetamine: Some studies have linked meth use to some neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. Others have found that use of meth can have a substantial impact on brain functioning, with damage equivalent to that of a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Traumatic brain injuries are most commonly associated with a sudden blow to the head with an object, or an object piercing the skull and entering the brain. Due to the rate at which meth kills brain cells, studies also suggest that even with long-term abstinence, the brain may never fully recover from the damage.
- Cocaine: Seizures and cardiac-arrest are the two leading causes of death among cocaine users. Long-term use of this drug can lead to the development of psychotic symptoms—such as paranoia—that worsen with continued use.
- Other Stimulants: Stimulant drugs can cause numerous neurological issues. Drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines can speed up brain activity, increase heart rate, and increase blood pressure, which can often lead to stroke.
- Inhalants: Inhalants are often common household items that produce a variety of effects when abused. Sniffing or huffing inhalants can have severe side effects including seizures, coma, and sudden sniffing death syndrome, in which an irregular heart rate causes heart failure within minutes of use. Because inhalants can range in chemical makeup, the side effects and their severity often vary drastically. Some symptoms that can arise include nerve damage, numbness, tremors, dizziness, speech impediments, depression, coordination problems, and weakness in limbs. Some nerve damage can be so severe that it leads to the development of symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis.
Drug Abuse Rewires the Brain
Despite knowing all of the damage substance abuse can inflict, those who suffer from addiction often continue to struggle because of the way in which it rewires the brain. Drugs and alcohol hijack the brain’s reward system, causing the body to crave them. Over time, the brain can no longer support its own reward system and completely relies on drugs or alcohol to feel good. This means a person will often no longer find satisfaction through normal means, and will continue to rely on substances to feel “normal”.
In some cases, brain damage can be reversed with proper care. There are short-term and long-term changes some may experience over time through abstinence and proper nutrition. While some damage may be permanent, positive changes can be achieved and maintained. For most, recovery can help clear a person’s mind from the fog substance abuse creates, allowing a person to have clearer thoughts than ever before. Mental and physical health will almost certainly improve. Regardless of the extent to which the brain can recover, treatment for addiction is always worth pursuing.
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