Can You Get Brain Damage from Drugs?

wrecking ball with alcohol text damaging a brain

Drugs, as well as alcohol, can have significant short-term effects on the brain because they’re psychoactive. Psychoactive substances can alter or influence the mental processes of the person using them. Psychoactive substances can change perception, mood, or consciousness, affecting neurotransmitters in the brain. That, in turn, influences thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

Psychoactive substances can be categorized based on their effects. For example, depressants like alcohol, opioids, and benzodiazepines slow down the central nervous system, while stimulants increase the activity. There can be significant effects on the brain in the short- and long-term, but whether or not you can get brain damage from drugs isn’t always clear-cut.

Broadly, certain drugs can potentially cause brain damage. Still, the extent and type of damage vary depending on factors like the drug itself, the dosage, frequency of use, and differences between individuals.

The Impact of Drugs on the Brain

Some of the general ways varying drugs can affect the brain include:

  • Many drugs affect neurotransmitter levels. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals responsible for the transmission of signals between nerve cells. Medications can increase or decrease neurotransmitters’ release, reuptake, or binding, changing neuron communication.
  • Psychoactive drugs activate the brain’s reward system through increased dopamine release. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter linked to pleasure and reward. The activation of this part of the brain and the release of dopamine create the euphoric feelings that come from drug use, reinforcing continued use.
  • Ongoing drug use can affect the structure and function of the brain over time. For example, chronic substance use can affect the size and activity of brain regions that play a role in behavior, decision-making, and memory.
  • Continued substance use can lead to tolerance, with higher doses meaning needed to achieve the same desired effects. Dependence can also form, which will mean withdrawal symptoms when the drug is not taken, contributing to the cycle of addiction.
  • Drugs can impair cognitive functions, including memory, judgment, and attention. With continued use, someone may struggle to perform daily tasks and make thoughtful decisions over time.

The Effects of Specific Drugs

Examples of how specific substances can affect the brain include:

  • Cocaine affects the brain primarily by blocking neurotransmitter reuptake, like dopamine and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters build up in the brain’s synapses, intensifying their effects. Repeated use alters the brain’s reward system, creating the risk of addiction.
  • Marijuana’s active compound, THC, binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain. These are located primarily in memory, pleasure, and coordination areas. In the long term, using marijuana regularly can affect cognitive functions, especially in younger people.
  • Opioids include heroin and prescription pain medications. These reduce the perception of pain and depress the central nervous system. Prolonged opioid use can lead to dependence, addiction, and tolerance, as well as structural brain changes.
  • MDMA is also known as ecstasy. It can increase the release of serotonin and block its reuptake. It also affects other neurotransmitters, like dopamine and norepinephrine. Prolonged use can contribute to long-term changes in the brain’s serotonin function.

Can Drugs Cause Brain Damage?

In short, yes, certain drugs can potentially cause brain damage, especially in situations of heavy or prolonged use. The extent of the damage depends on individual factors.

Substances that can potentially cause brain damage include:

  • Methamphetamine can cause structural and functional changes in the brain. It can damage serotonin and dopamine neurons and affect mood, pleasure, and cognitive function. Chronic meth use can cause long-term cognitive deficits and emotional disturbances.
  • With opioids, there can be reduced oxygen that reaches the brain, known as hypoxia, especially in the event of an overdose. This can lead to brain damage, in addition to the effects of chronic use on the brain’s structure and function.
  • Inhalants like toluene or nitrous oxide can damage the myelin sheath covering nerve fibers. This process, known as demyelination, can cause cognitive deficits and impaired nerve function.

While not technically a drug, alcohol is also linked to brain damage. Chronic alcohol use can cause a loss of brain tissue, especially in areas linked to cognition and memory. Conditions like Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, characterized by severe memory problems, are linked to long-term alcohol abuse.

Types of Substance-Related Brain Damage

Some of the ways drugs or alcohol contribute to brain damage include:

  • Neurotoxicity: Some drugs are directly neurotoxic, meaning they can damage or destroy brain nerve cells. Methamphetamine is an example of a drug with neurotoxic effects.
  • Hypoxia: Not getting enough oxygen to the brain cells can cause damage and, in some cases, brain injuries that aren’t reversible.
  • Neurotransmitter levels: Most psychoactive drugs alter the brain’s neurotransmitter levels, which can affect the balance and cause damage to the neurons that play a role in these processes.
  • Structural changes: Chronic drug use contributes to structural changes in the brain. Long-term alcohol use, for example, is associated with a decline in brain volume and tissue.
  • Blood flow: Some drugs impair blood flow to the brain, raising the risk of strokes or vascular problems, which can damage brain tissue.

Is Drug-Related Brain Damage Reversible?

How reversible brain damage from drug use is depends on many factors. Often, the brain has a remarkable ability to adapt and recover, but in severe cases, the damage could be more long-lasting or irreversible.

The brain has a high degree of plasticity, which is part of why damage can be reversed from substance use. For example, if the use of drugs changes neurotransmitter levels, neural pathways, or receptors, the changes may be partially or fully reversible over time, especially with abstinence. Mild cognitive impairment may also be reversible as long as someone stops using substances.

Reductions in brain volume associated with memory and cognition can begin to recover after sustained abstinence from drugs and alcohol, too.

Less often, where drug use leads to extreme damage or death of neurons, recovery can be limited. This is most often what’s seen in situations of hypoxia or severe neurotoxicity. Chronic alcohol use and related conditions like Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome may lead to permanent impairment to specific brain regions that aren’t fully reversible, even if someone stops drinking.

Individual responses to brain damage from drugs and alcohol vary, as do recovery timelines. The best way to improve outcomes is early intervention, with treatment for substance use disorders.

Brain Damage Doesn’t Have To Be Permanent

If you’re struggling with drugs or alcohol, or you have a loved one who is, our addiction treatment programs can help stop some of the brain damage that might be occurring. Our recovery experts can also help you or your loved one find strategies to reverse it through addiction recovery. Contact us today to learn more.

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