Abusing drugs and alcohol can have many adverse health consequences on the body. These effects can include insomnia, unhealthy weight loss, seizures, stroke, and a weakened immune system; as well as heart, lung, and liver conditions. Prolonged use of drugs and alcohol can also cause memory problems because many brain regions affected by addictive substances help regulate cognitive functions such as memory. As a result, the longer individuals remain addicted to drugs and alcohol, the more likely they are to experience brain fog, memory loss, absentmindedness, dementia, amnesia, and other memory disorders.
Addiction and The Brain
Addiction can be equally damaging to the brain as it is to the physical body. Shortly after use, the chemical compounds in stimulants, opioids, alcohol, hallucinogens, and sedatives enter the brain and bloodstream. When this happens, the compounds in addictive substances interfere with the brain’s routine tasks, changing how the organ functions. Eventually, individuals lose control of their impulses and compulsively use addictive substances despite adverse consequences.
Even though different substances can affect different parts of the brain, most drugs and alcohol affect the:
- Brain stem. This part of the brain regulates the functions the body needs to remain alive, such as breathing, moving blood, digesting food, and managing oxygen levels. The brain stem also lets the brain know what’s happening in the body.
- Limbic system. This system combines several brain structures to control emotional responses. Good feelings that result from kissing someone we love or eating dessert motivate us to repeat the behavior.
- Cerebral cortex. This is the part of the brain that looks like a mushroom. The cerebral cortex, composed of four lobes, helps regulate how we process information. The frontal part of the cerebral cortex handles our ability to think, plan, and solve problems.
Besides negatively affecting these brain areas, addiction can also negatively affect parts of the brain that help regulate memory.
Brain Areas That Help Regulate Memory
Our brains determine who we are, what we think, and how we behave. The brain also determines what we remember and what we don’t. Our brains are healthy when our memories are stored correctly. Addiction weakens brain areas that regulate memory, including the:
- Amygdala. The amygdala’s primary function is to regulate emotions like fear and aggression. This almond-shaped gland helps store memories because stress hormones influence what the brain stores. When we have emotional experiences, the amygdala tags the memory of that experience specifically so we remember it better. Additionally, the amygdala helps transfer newly learned, emotionally arousing information into long-term memory. Damage to the amygdala can cause poor decision-making and impaired emotional memories.
- Hippocampus. The hippocampus, which resides deep in the brain’s temporal lobe, plays a significant role in learning and memory. The rear section of the hippocampus helps process spatial memory (i.e., remembering where an object is or where an event happened). This part of the brain also helps consolidate memories in the brain while we sleep. Damage to the hippocampus can significantly impact our ability to form new memories and remember directions and locations.
- Cerebellum and prefrontal cortex. The cerebellum, which resides in the back of the skull, regulates movement. The prefrontal cortex handles short-term memory and decision-making. Research has found that memory activity in the frontal cortex depends on the cerebellum. This part of the brain guides our movement by learning from errors. When we first learn to throw and catch a ball, we tend to throw poorly and miss a lot of catches. The cerebellum remembers these errors and helps the brain adjust our movements, helping us learn to throw and catch more accurately. When disease, conditions, and injuries disrupt communication between the cerebellum and the frontal cortex, memory activity can be negatively impacted.
- Neurotransmitters. Researchers don’t fully understand the role each neurotransmitter plays in memory-making, but they know that the communication in the brain that happens through neurotransmitters is a critical part of developing new memories. These neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers in the brain, also help us process memories. When addiction changes the number of neurotransmitters in the brain, connections between neurons weaken, negatively affecting our ability to make, store, and consolidate memories.
As chemical compounds in addictive substances weaken these brain areas, addiction starts to take a toll on our ability to create, store, and retain memories.
How Can Addiction Affect Memory?
Research consistently shows a link between substance abuse and memory loss. Here’s a little insight into how that memory loss can occur:
1. Addiction Can Prevent The Brain From Creating New Memories Correctly
When people consume excessive drugs or alcohol, they tend to blackout. Although temporary, these blackouts stop the brain from completing the process of forming memories. This inability to create new memories properly can make recalling recent events extremely difficult, leading to short-term memory loss.
2. Addiction Can Negatively Impact The Brain’s Memory-Storage System
Using drugs and alcohol can negatively affect the hippocampus. The chemical compounds in addictive substances distort the messages sent to and from the hippocampus. When those messages become distorted, the hippocampus cannot convert short-term memories into long-term memories. As a result, declarative memories related to facts, birthdays, important dates, and historical events become challenging to remember. Spatial memories about directions, locations, and instructions can also be negatively affected.
3. Addiction Can Increase The Risk Of Memory-Related Disorders
Severe substance abuse can cause brain damage that increases the risk of memory-related disorders such as dementia, amnesia, Korsakoff’s syndrome, and Alzheimer’s. Some of the most common symptoms associated with memory loss and conditions include:
- Asking the same questions repeatedly
- Mixing words up such as “bed” instead of “table.”
- Misplacing items in inappropriate places (i.e. putting a wallet in a kitchen cabinet)
- Getting lost while walking or driving in a familiar area
- Taking a longer time to complete common and familiar tasks
Brain-Focused Addiction Treatment
Experiencing symptoms of brain damage can be one of the most frightening and concerning adverse effects of addiction. Luckily, some of the brain damage caused by addiction can be reversed with the right type of treatment. That’s why we pride ourselves on offering brain-focused addiction treatment.
All of our addiction treatment programs incorporate evidence-based brain science to help the brain function optimally. If you or someone you know is experiencing addiction-based memory loss, contact us. We can help you regain some memory and work to restore your brain health.
Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies
Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.