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Do Drugs Really Cause Brain Damage?

by Landmark Recovery

February 27, 2023
An illustration of the human brain, showing what appears to be an X-ray of a woman's skull, with electrical activity in the brain.

Updated: May 30, 2023, at 9:38 a.m.

Drug use does cause brain damage. This is a fact. However, drug users often exploit how slowly the damage can progress to claim certain drugs don’t damage the brain. These myths have become so pervasive that researchers from Columbia University studied how methamphetamine use might actually improve cognition rather than hurt it. The same study confirms brain damage from meth abuse, yet the study has been used to justify the notion that meth is harmless.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) published a research report that thoroughly included molecular changes to the brain in its assessment of the effects of long-term meth use. Of course, drugs do, indeed, damage the brain to varying degrees, including meth as even the Columbia University team conceded.

What Substances Can Cause Brain Damage?

Any substance carries the potential to cause brain damage. Per NIDA, however, the following list of drugs can all potentially damage the brain:

In this list, the stimulants in question are amphetamines and cocaine.

Stimulant Brain Damage

Stimulants appear to cause the most damage to the brain because they increase central nervous system activity to dangerous levels. This causes blood vessels to constrict and blood pressure to go up. That might result in a stroke, which has its own grave risks to the brain. They could also cause memory loss and even personality changes. 

Alcoholism impacts the brain in more subtle yet still suffocating ways. It correlates with thiamine deficiency in 80% of diagnosed alcoholics. In tandem with other malnutrition that also prove consistent with alcoholism, this causes neurologic damage gradually. One of the other contributing deficiencies would be that of vitamin B1. 

Brain damage made visible on a scan of the brani after the subject underwent significant and extensive drug abuse.B1 deficiency then leads to Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which is a combination of Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Encephalopathy, or biochemical lesions on the brain, is a short-term condition that can be treated whereas Korsakoff’s psychosis is permanent damage to the brain’s recall ability.

Several opioid painkillers have also been known to damage the brain. Chief among them in this regard is heroin, which can make white matter in the brain shrivel up into useless mass. That impinges upon decision-making capability and stress management skills. Other painkillers like oxycodone, Percocet or Vicodin can ruin your impulse control and mood regulation too.

Meth — the most popular stimulant in the U.S. today — directly damages brain cells whether users have a stroke or not. Some research even correlates that damage with an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease.

Studies have found both meth and MDMA (ecstasy) to have effects in common with traumatic brain injury. These effects include protein shifts and inflammation in the brain. Many of the effects are presently thought to be irreversible.

Chronic cocaine use leads some users to develop seizures. What’s worse: long-term abuse makes these seizures increasingly likely and common, requiring smaller and smaller doses.

With most substances, consistent use for a prolonged period is the greatest risk factor. The sooner you get treatment, the better off your brain will be. Scientific evidence of brain damage is one of several reasons why evidence-based treatment programs involve targeted therapy.

Why Drug Myths Persist

There’s a common sentiment that drugs, especially alcohol, make it easier for people to socialize. However, it’s important to remember how often you regret your actions and words when you sober up. 

Others say no one has ever died from certain drugs like marijuana or LSD. Nevertheless, hallucinogens like these and others generally correlate with an increased risk of accidental death

You may hear from opioid abusers that a logo on a pill is a good indicator that its ingredients are safe or pure. Unfortunately, law enforcement commonly finds that so-called party drugs like ecstasy are disguised this way.

The National Library of Medicine includes a 2020 study of how the harm caused by controlled substances is exaggerated. The study comes from Carl L. Hart — the same lead researcher who led the investigation meth’s possible cognitive benefits. 

Racial Component

Hart found that exaggerations of harm from recreational drug use has historically been used to justify disproportionately high incarceration rates in the Black community. A lead example was the murder of George Floyd, which former Police Officer Derek Chauvin justified citing Floyd’s suspected possession or sale of a controlled substance.

The racial complexity of anti-drug campaign history in the U.S. have led some, like Hart, to challenge the accepted paradigms about harmful drugs. That same racial component also inspired a study critiquing Black people’s addiction treatment experiences.

That said, even Hart’s team maintains that these things don’t mean recreational use of meth should be condoned. They also make a point to acknowledge the harms of methamphetamine in exchange for whatever benefits short-term use may bring.

Don’t Believe the Hype

If you’re hearing these myths, don’t believe the hype. If you think your brain isn’t affected by your substance of choice, chances are you’re mistaken. Most of the controlled substances in question deal direct harm to the brain. 

A user’s mental health often depends on how soon they can stop using. Therefore, if you or a loved one struggle with any of these substances, call 888-448-0302 to talk to an addiction specialist.  You can find the nearest drug and alcohol rehab center here, and transportation can be provided at no cost.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.