Neurologists increasingly find addicts with memory damage
Dr. Jed Barash began noticing a strange pattern of memory damage in his patients at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb. The MRI scans of these relatively young patients all showed damage to the hippocampi, which is a key area of the brain for forming new memories.
In total, fourteen patients with early onset amnesia identified during the period of June 2012 to July 2016 displayed complete, bilateral hippocampal ischemia, or a deficiency of blood supply to the short term memory center on both sides of the brain.
The patients were relatively young, with ages ranging from 19 to 52, with a median age of 35. Of the 14 patients, 13 tested positive for opioids or had a documented history of opioid use. MRI scans revealed that the hippocampus, which is responsible for long-term memory, emotions, and learning, was directly affected.
“These cases are a very particular subset of brain damage that can occur from use of opioids,” Barash noted. “But I think more likely there are probably cases of patients who may not necessarily have this particular syndrome but suffer cognitive difficulties from longer term use of opioids and it’s important to know the scope of that.” It’s also plausible that there are more extreme cases on the other end of the spectrum — people who have taken sub-lethal doses but are too far gone to have their memory tested.
Barash, and others involved in the investigation are quick to point out that the only way to test this hypothesis is to gather more well-documented cases.
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To read more about research into opioid induced amnesia, please visit Undark.org.