Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It has legal uses, mostly for treating severe pain like advanced cancer pain. When used illicitly, it is typically mixed with heroin or cocaine. Drug dealers sometimes mix it into other products either because it strengthens their effects or because it is cheap and easily accessible, which cuts down on the overall costs to the dealers. As a result, some people don’t even know they’re consuming it. Fentanyl has a variety of side effects, including euphoria, sedation, confusion, drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, urinary retention, pupillary constriction, and respiratory depression. One unusual effect that has been emerging lately is short-term memory loss.
In May 2017, a 30-year old man was brought to a hospital in West Virginia by his family. He was only a few weeks out of rehab, and his family found him unconscious on the floor, surrounded by drug paraphernalia. He was conscious when he arrived at the hospital but kept asking the same questions repeatedly and couldn’t remember that he’d just asked them. He was given an MRI, which revealed irregularities in his brain.
This man was the 16th person to show such symptoms after mixing fentanyl with cocaine. Researchers believe this combination could damage the brain so severely that people can have difficulty forming new memories. All of these patients had lesions on the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with memory. They have
One theory is that drugs limited or block oxygen to the hippocampus, which is mainly involved with learning and memory. People with damage to this part of the brain – whether from drug use, accidents, or disease – typically experience loss of more recent memories and an inability to hold on to new ones. Their long term memory is generally not affected, because those memories are stored in another part of the brain. In an aside that may or may not be related, depression and stress can also cause the hippocampus to become smaller. Both of these conditions are fairly common in drug users, either as the impetus to their substance abuse or as a side effect.
Of course, rather than lack of oxygen it could just be the chemicals themselves damaging the brain, or a combination of both factors. Either way, this poses unusual problems for people who survive overdoses, as treatment may be complicated by the ability to remember any new information.
If you or a loved one need help with quitting drugs or alcohol, consider Asana Recovery. We offer medical detox, along with both residential and outpatient programs, and you’ll be supervised by a highly trained staff of medical professionals, counselors, and therapists. Call us any time at (949) 438-4504.