Brain Damage from Drugs and Alcohol: Can We Reverse the Damage?

Anyone of a certain age may remember public service announcements that ran in the 1980s and 1990s. They were the work of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (now known as the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids).

One featured a dad at a stove. He picks up an egg. “This is your brain.” He holds up a frying pan. “This is drugs.” He cracks the egg into the pan. The egg bubbles and sizzles. “This is your brain on drugs.”

In the 1990s, actress Rachael Leigh Cook starred in another television spot. Another egg. Another frying pan. This time the pan represents heroin, and Cook proceeds to smash the egg-brain, along with everything else in the kitchen. Family, friends, job, health. All crushed under the addiction.

The spots were often parodied, memorable as they were, but their message was clear. Your brain will be “fried” on drugs.

Drugs remain a very real problem in today’s society, but do they really “fry” the brain? And once that so-called egg is cracked, is there any going back?

How Do Drugs and Alcohol Affect the Brain?

There’s the warning we’ve heard a thousand times before: don’t do drugs or drink to excess, or risk destroying brain cells.

Partying too hearty can do some damage, but do drugs kill brain cells? Not exactly. It depends on a number of factors, including a person’s age, the substance used or abused, the frequency of substance use, and the amount.

In terms of age, the risk of drug use tends to be higher when a person is younger. Major transitional periods — starting middle school or high school, for example — as well as new academic challenges, extracurricular activities, social situations, and peer pressure, these all add stress. The tweens and teen years are also times when exposure to drugs (including alcohol) is more likely — either for social purposes or to give an assist to academic or athletic pursuits.

Such substance use can be problematic for young brains since they’re still growing — especially the prefrontal cortex, which oversees decision making — until the mid-20s. Drugs can interfere with judgment calls as well as brain development.

When drugs and alcohol enter the picture, that decision-making ability is affected much more than a thirty-something adult, for example. Risky behaviors such as unsafe sex, driving while under the influence (or driving with someone under the influence) become increasingly likely.

Use at a young age also raises the likelihood of (but does not guarantee) developing an addiction. Short-term use can affect appetite, mood, and blood pressure, among many other things. Long-term misuse can lead to health problems such as heart disease, lung disease, cancer, and yes, addiction.

Effects of Drugs and Alcohol on the Brain

In cases of addiction, drug and alcohol use can change the circuitry of the brain. Its neurons release neurotransmitters to send messages. Drugs get in the way of the delivery system.

Some drugs such as heroin or marijuana can switch neurons on because they mimic neurotransmitter activity. The drugs can step in and activate the neurons. They may mime the way the brain’s chemicals function, but they don’t do it naturally. It’s like using a poor substitution. It might seem to be working, but it’s not working the way it should be.

Other drugs such as amphetamine or cocaine cause neurons to blast out huge amounts of neurotransmitters or interfere with how these brain chemicals would normally recycle themselves. This interferes with neuron communication. In the case of cocaine, the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine doesn’t clear so readily from synapses and the result is euphoria.

By overloading the brain’s reward centers, decision-making, learning, memory, and impulse control are affected.

Parts of the brain affected by drug use include:

  • Basal ganglia: Plays a key role in positive motivation, including pleasure from eating, sex, socialization, etc. Drugs create a feeling of euphoria. In time the brain adjusts and soon the drug takes center stage as a pleasure source, making everything else pale in comparison.
  • Extended amygdala: Connected to stress, including anxiety or irritability. The more a person uses a drug, the more this part of the brain is affected, and the worse the withdrawal will be. In time, the user resorts to drugs simply to find relief from the withdrawal symptoms.
  • Prefrontal cortex: Linked to thinking, planning, problem-solving, decision-making, and self-control. This part of the brain matures last, so youthful drug users are especially vulnerable here.

Other parts can be affected, too, including the brain stem (which controls heart rate, breathing, and sleeping) That’s one of the reasons people can be in danger of coma or even death, especially after opioid abuse.

Brain Damage from Drugs – Signs and Sources

Brain damage can happen in any number of ways.

Traumatic injuries result from falls, motor vehicle accidents, or a wound. Concussions, contusions, and closed head injuries — basically anything that causes some kind of physical impact — are examples.

Nontraumatic injuries more often result from infections such as meningitis, a lack of oxygen, strokes, or tumors. These injuries can be caused by exposure to poisons such as carbon monoxide, choking or drowning, or drug overdoses.

Symptoms of a brain injury may include:

  • Balance problems
  • Blurred vision
  • Confusion
  • Incoherent speech
  • Headaches
  • Memory troubles
  • Seizures

Personality shifts or changes in certain functions can result, too, depending on where the damage is located. The frontal lobe, for example, may affect speaking or emotions.

The parietal lobe controls the five senses, such as taste or smell. An injury to the brain stem, at the bottom portion of the head, can diminish (or worse, stop) breathing, heart rate, and sleep cycles. An opioid overdose can slow or shut down the brain stem too.

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Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Alcohol can be an especially troubling substance to abuse, no matter one’s age. In particular, it inhibits nutrient absorption. The resulting deficiencies can lead to major health problems.

One of the worst is a sort of alcoholic dementia, clinically known as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and informally known as wet brain. This syndrome is a brain disorder that is caused by a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine). It’s a mix of two conditions: Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome.

Wernicke encephalopathy is usually the first stage of the condition. Its symptoms include confusion, poor muscle coordination, and abnormal eye movements. These give way to Korsakoff syndrome, where people cannot form new memories, experience severe memory loss, make up stories, and hallucinate.

Typically tests will be ordered to check for deficiencies, and vitamin B1 is usually given right away, which can help. If treated soon enough, a person may make a partial recovery, but if it isn’t, the symptoms can worsen and will possibly become life-threatening.

How to Recover from Brain Damage from Drugs

There’s not really a do-over when it comes to brain injuries. That’s not to say damage is a one-way street, except in advanced Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, or liver or heart damage, or if an overdose stops the heart or breathing for too long. Such severe experiences may be irreversible.

Typically vitamin and electrolyte infusions, a healthy and balanced diet, physical or occupational therapies to build strength and relearn skills, and behavioral therapies to overcome and manage addiction, those all can be very helpful in regaining a sense of normality as well as sobriety.

Also, consider this: the jury’s still out whether the brain can grow new cells, but the brain has a kind of plasticity that allows it to sort of remodeling itself as needed. Consider stroke victims who’ve made tremendous progress regaining speech and movement. That’s plasticity at work.

Then there’s the use-it-or-lose-it way of thinking. Keep your brain busy by learning a new language. Challenge it with learning dance steps. Keep your body active and healthy with exercise and a good diet. And be sure to get enough sleep.

There is a chance that, yes, a person can suffer permanent brain damage from drugs and suicidal thoughts, but with work — and it can be a lot — a person can dramatically improve their health as they achieve and hold onto sobriety.

Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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