A new disturbing side effect of the opioid epidemic has come to light – researchers have discovered new evidence that suggests those who experience non-fatal overdoses are at risk for a unique form of amnesia. Moreover, cocaine mixed with the potent opioid fentanyl could cause brain damage that causes overdose survivors difficulty in forming new memories.
The study comes on the heels of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that described an unusual form of amnesia diagnosed in more than a dozen people in Massachusetts between 2012-2016. All of the patients tested positive for opioids or had a history of drug abuse.
While the amnesia appeared to be temporary, it persisted for over a year in two unfortunate patients. The CDC speculated that a reason might be that the overdose reduced or blocked oxygen to the hippocampus region of the brain, resulting in damage, but that more research was needed.
The study detailed the following case report, paraphrased:
In May 2017, a 30-year-old man was transferred from a hospital in Maryland to a medical center in West Virginia for persistent memory impairment. He had a history of heroin use and had been recently discharged from an addiction treatment center.
Once home, he returned late one evening, the family has trouble rousing him and subsequently found drug paraphernalia. The man was asking repetitive questions as if couldn’t remember what he had just asked. He was then taken to a nearby hospital.
For the study, investigators examined two more cases of patients who exhibited signs of this amnesia, and also experimented with rats for signs that fentanyl, in particular, could trigger amnesia by itself or when mixed with cocaine.
According to Healthline, Marc Haut, PhD., lead author said that it’s important to discern whether the amnesia is being caused by just oxygen deprivation from an overdose or a combination of opioids and stimulants that result in brain damage.
Moreover, stimulants can damage nerve cells, while opioids can cause life-threating central nervous system depression. Haut said their current hypothesis is that the additive effects of the cardiac or respiration system being compromised results in this syndrome.
He added that it’s concerning that many more users may be suffering from this condition undiagnosed – it is most often families who first identified signs of amnesia in the cases studied.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology