Alcohol and drugs have profound effects on the brain, leading to what we see as the external side effects of drug and alcohol abuse. When a person abuses a drug or gets intoxicated, there are clear outward signs and behaviors that display this. However, there are also a slew of consequences for the brain, an organ that is greatly affected by both short-term and long-term drug abuse.
As a result, it is entirely possible to get brain damage from drugs or alcohol. Research shows some drugs like methamphetamine and MDMA can even damage the brain in ways that are similar to a traumatic brain injury (TBI), which can kill brain cells, cause memory loss, and lead to irreversible brain damage.1,2 However, depending on the drug that was used, how it was used, and the person using, the severity of the damage and its ability to be repaired will vary.
5 Warning Signs of Brain Damage From Drugs and Alcohol
If you or a loved one has abused drugs or alcohol for a long period of time, suffered from drug-induced seizures, overdoses, or suspects there may be some brain damage, there are several different warning signs to look for. If you suspect something is wrong or you are experiencing some of these problems, you should always seek medical help.
These warning signs may indicate short-term or permanent brain damage caused by drug and alcohol abuse.
- Delayed reactions – Delayed reaction times can be a sign that there is a problem with brain function. Examples could include taking a long time to recognize you’re touching something hot or raising your hands to block your face after something has already hit you.
- Severe memory problems – Things like memory lapses or blackouts should not be a regular occurrence. If they are, it’s time to seek medical attention and investigate the potential role of drugs and alcohol on the problem.
- Hallucinations – If a person is hallucinating while they are sober, it could be caused by frequent or long-term drug abuse. Many medical conditions can also cause hallucinations (including schizophrenia, which is common among drug users), so it’s important to see a doctor if you are sensing objects, people, tastes, smells, or bodily movements that aren’t real.
- Sudden lack of coordination – Everyone trips or falls once in a while, but if a person is suddenly experiencing a loss of physical coordination, it could be a sign that the brain is not functioning properly. Examples of coordination problems could be frequent falls or difficult grabbing and holding on to things.
- Problems thinking – Being unable to think clearly, not being able to plan, or having difficulties making decisions and performing daily tasks can make life very difficult. This could be a signal that something is not right and your brain is struggling to perform its job.
Brain Disorders Caused by Drug and Alcohol Abuse
Many drugs have harmful neurological effects that impact the brain’s ability to function and maintain its health.3 Whether the drugs cause seizure, stroke, or have direct effects on the cells in the brain, the results can have lasting effects on a person’s health and quality of life.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), there are several different brain disorders that can be caused by drug and alcohol abuse.4
- Psychosis – Psychosis is a condition that is characterized by losing contact with reality. It usually occurs in an episode with symptoms including hallucinations, speech that doesn’t make sense, inappropriate behavior, and difficulty functioning normally.5
- Anhedonia – Anhedonia is an inability to feel pleasure socially and/or physically.6 It is often caused by consistent recreational drug abuse but it can also be a core symptom of depression, which may also be drug-induced.
- Dementia – Although it is not a disease itself, dementia is a term used to describe several symptoms associated with a severe decline in mental function, including memory loss. It can also cause language and speech problems, reasoning and judgment, visual perception, and focus.7
- Delirium – Delirium can occur in the elderly, but when it happens to a young person, it is most likely due to drug use. A person suffering from delirium will have problems focusing, display inappropriate behavior, fearlessness, and paranoia. They may also be overly irritated and hyperactive or extremely withdrawn and lethargic.8
- Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome – Chronic alcohol abuse can cause Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which is characterized by extreme confusion, vision changes, exaggerated storytelling and loss of muscle coordination.9
- Persisting perceptual disorder – Although it is rare, Persisting Perceptual Disorder can be extremely difficult to live with. The disorder can cause visual disturbances like flashes of color, intensified colors, halos around objects, seeing an image within another image, and seeing geometric patterns that aren’t there.10 As you can imagine, this can make reading and many other social situations very difficult.
Types of Drugs that Can Cause Brain Damage
No drug is “safe” to misuse, even if it’s a prescription drug that was prescribed by a doctor. A person can experience very unpleasant and dangerous side effects misusing any drug, and they may get brain damage if they abuse drugs heavily over the course of many years. Here are some of the most common types of drugs that can cause brain damage (this list is not exclusive):
- Opioids (heroin, prescription painkillers)
- Stimulants (methamphetamine, cocaine, MDMA)
- Cannabis (marijuana)
- Hallucinogens (PCP, LSD)
- Benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax)
Is It Possible to Reverse Brain Damage from Drugs?
Some types of brain damage from drugs are reversible, not all are. If you or a loved one has suffered brain damage due to drug abuse, it’s impossible to say what is repairable and what is not purely based on symptoms or diagnosis.
A medical doctor will be able to tell you how much of the damage can be reversed if any. While large amounts of cellular death in the brain is not repairable, early-stage brain damage may be repairable.
Healing the Physical and Psychological Damage of Drug Abuse
The possibility of brain damage from drugs and alcohol is a scary prospect, but the key to a full recovery is early detection and treatment. A medical drug and alcohol detox program can provide proper medical care and treatment for individuals who are recovering from substance abuse problems.
During medical detox at Briarwood, clients’ immediate withdrawal symptoms are treated to provide a more comfortable and safe detox experience. As clients begin to heal and recover and their bodies return to a more normal state of balance, our medical and clinical team will work together to provide a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses all physical and psychological needs. This may include treatment for neurological problems like psychosis, dementia, and delirium.
In addition, Briarwood Detox Center also provides chef-prepared meals that are nutritious and helpful for the healing process, as some brain disorders like Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome are primarily caused by nutritional deficiencies from consistent alcohol abuse.