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Addiction and Substance Abuse

What Are the Effects of Drug Abuse on Memory?

07/19/2010

Question:

I'm a recovering heroin and cocaine addict, and I'm wondering about the effects of drugs on the memory. I used very heavily for several years and have been clean for over 3 and a half years. I've read many articles that say the effects of these drugs on your brain are fully reversible over time, however, I feel as though my brain function is definitely not what it should be at my age. I'm only 27, but I have problems remembering ANYTHING from any time of my life. Things that my childhood friends remember easily - things that they say I used to recall- I cannot remember for the life of me. In addition to this, I feel as if I'm generally not as "smart" as I once was. And while everyone says "drugs kill your brain," why does everything I read say that the effects are reversible when, in my experience, they definitely are not? Is it just MY brain or is this normal for addicts?

Answer:

Thank you for your question and it is a very good question! There is conflicting data about the effect of drug use and memory, much more research is underway and even more is needed.

 
The data about opiate use (the heroin) is pretty clear: long term opiate use does not affect brain function or memory. That is why there can be programs for opiate maintenance and chronic pain that use daily opiates.
 
The data about stimulant use is more murky. Certainly long-term heavy amphetamine and especially methamphetamine use can cause memory problems and other brain damage. This is thought to be much less with cocaine and crack-cocaine, but there can be some damage and memory issues.
 
Finally, there is the research on "state-dependent" learning and memory. Meaning that memory of events that were experienced or "learned" in certain states (like the state of being high or stoned), are less accessible to the brain when the person is no longer in that "state".

So memory that was laid down in your brain during your using years may be less accessible and feel like a memory deficit. The NIDA web-site is a good one for some more information about these issues. Thank you again for your question.  

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Response by:

Ted   Parran, MD Ted Parran, MD
Associate Professor of General Medical Sciences
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University