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Signs of Brain Damage from Drugs

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The prolonged use of psychoactive drugs can cause brain damage as the brain undergoes significant alterations due to the impact of alcohol and drugs, manifesting in the observable external symptoms of substance abuse. When someone misuses drugs or becomes intoxicated, behavioral and physical indicators reflect this state. It is the brain that bears the brunt of these actions, though. This can lead to a variety of short-term and long term effects of drugs on the body and brain. Read on to learn more about drug-induced brain damage and discover how to repair your brain after drug use.

Brain Damage from Drugs Signs

If you or someone you care about has a history of prolonged drug or alcohol abuse, experienced drug-induced seizures or overdoses, or suspects the presence of brain damage, several warning signs can indicate these issues. If you notice any signs of brain damage from drugs or suspect a problem, seek medical help promptly. These warning signs may suggest short-term or lasting brain damage resulting from substance abuse:

Severe memory problems

Instances such as memory lapses or blackouts should not be commonplace. If they are, it is essential to seek medical attention and assess the potential impact of drugs and alcohol on these issues.

Delayed reactions

A delay in reaction times could indicate impaired brain function. Examples might include taking a prolonged time to recognize hot surfaces or raising hands to shield the face after an impact has occurred.

Sudden lack of coordination

While occasional trips and falls are normal, a sudden loss of physical coordination may signify impaired brain function. Examples could include frequent falls or difficulty grasping and holding onto objects.

Problems thinking

Inability to think clearly, plan, make decisions, or perform daily tasks effectively can significantly impact daily life. This could indicate an underlying issue where the brain is struggling to function properly.


If someone experiences hallucinations while sober, it could be linked to frequent or prolonged drug abuse. While various medical conditions can also cause hallucinations, you should consult a doctor if sensing unreal objects, people, tastes, smells, or bodily movements.

What Do Drugs Do to Your Brain?

NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) states that drugs exert their influence by altering the manner in which the brain’s neurons handle information via neurotransmitters. These shifts in brain function can fuel the compulsive use characteristic of a substance use disorder, while also potentially causing enduring effects on learning, memory, and judgment.

NIDA highlights three primary brain regions affected by substance use and abuse:

  1. The basal ganglia, a crucial component of the reward circuit involved in habit formation and routines.
  2. The extended amygdala, implicated in dependence and the experience of stress and anxiety during withdrawal.
  3. The prefrontal cortex, indispensable for higher cognitive functions such as decision-making and impulse control.

By interfering with these areas, drugs can:

  • Produce an intense addictive euphoria and, over time, reduce the brain’s capacity to derive significant pleasure from natural rewards like food, sleep, sex, or exercise.
  • Prompt adaptations in the brain leading to withdrawal symptoms when drug use diminishes or ceases.
  • Impair an individual’s cognitive abilities, problem-solving skills, planning capabilities, and impulse regulation. Since the prefrontal cortex matures last, adolescents and teenagers who misuse drugs face the greatest risk of enduring impacts on this region of the brain.

What drugs cause brain damage, then?

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List of Drugs That Cause Brain Damage

  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Stimulants
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Opioids


While alcohol’s short-term effects include delayed reactions and memory lapses, its enduring consequences can be detrimental. Over time, chronic alcohol consumption can contribute to brain atrophy, with women potentially facing heightened vulnerability to this outcome.

Beyond this, alcoholism can indirectly influence the brain. Poor nutrition due to alcoholism often results in a deficiency of vitamin B1 (thiamine), with NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) reporting that up to 80% of individuals with alcohol use disorders suffer from this deficiency. Regrettably, this condition can have severe implications for the brain. Thiamine deficiency can give rise to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which combines the symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. These symptoms include confusion, nerve paralysis in the eyes, diminished muscle coordination, and profound issues with memory and learning.

Additionally, alcohol is recognized for its detrimental impact on the developing brain. When consumed during pregnancy, alcohol can result in an array of problems, ranging from learning difficulties to behavioral challenges. In the most extreme scenarios, fetal alcohol syndrome may occur, characterized by distinct facial features, reduced brain size, and impaired brain cell functionality.


Despite its commonly held perception as relatively harmless, the increasing potency of recreational marijuana strains challenges this notion. Studies suggest that the consumption of marijuana with high THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) levels can potentially harm the corpus callosum, a brain region responsible for collecting and transmitting information between the brain’s hemispheres to process motor, sensory, and cognitive signals.

Adolescents who use marijuana may experience altered brain development, with frequent use during this developmental stage linked to significant declines in individual IQ levels.

Beyond this, individuals predisposed to certain mental health conditions face an increased risk of developing schizophrenia and other chronic psychotic disorders due to marijuana use.


Misuse of prescription stimulants like Adderall is meant to enhance mental performance. However, research indicates that stimulant abuse can reduce the brain’s adaptability, leading to challenges in executive function and a decline in cognitive and behavioral flexibility. This aspect is especially troubling for individuals struggling with stimulant addiction, as behavioral adaptability is crucial for overcoming substance use disorders. Young people with developing brains may be more vulnerable to these alterations.

Illicit psychostimulant drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine are associated with depressive symptoms, including low mood and irritability. While these symptoms often subside during periods of abstinence, other effects like anhedonia (the inability to experience pleasure) and lack of motivation might persist even after extended periods of sobriety.

Additionally, long-term methamphetamine use can lead to persistent psychotic symptoms such as paranoia and delusions, even after discontinuing the drug. Former meth users may be susceptible to spontaneous psychosis during stressful situations. Chronic methamphetamine use can induce substantial functional and structural changes in brain regions linked to emotion and memory. Additionally, similar challenges with flexibility, as seen with prescription stimulant use, may emerge from meth use, making it challenging for individuals to discontinue unproductive behaviors and exacerbating the difficulty of long-term recovery from addiction.


Some evidence suggests a correlation between benzodiazepines and cognitive decline. Although cognitive function tends to improve upon the discontinuation of benzodiazepines, it often fails to return to its initial state even after extended periods of abstinence.

Benzodiazepines are also known to cause memory issues and can lead to anterograde amnesia, a condition that inhibits the formation of new memories. Also, the use of benzodiazepines has been associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. A study involving nearly 9,000 elderly individuals in Quebec revealed that the risk of developing Alzheimer’s was heightened by up to 51% among those who had used benzodiazepines at some point in the past, with a stronger correlation observed in individuals using long-acting benzodiazepines like Valium.


Some people who are dependent on opioids have displayed worrying brain changes, including modifications in the brain’s white matter tracts, which have been associated with antisocial behavior like violence and aggression. Additionally, alterations in the functional interconnectivity between specific brain regions can lead to cognitive processing difficulties and serve as indicators of structural brain changes. These individuals may also experience a reduction in the volume of the amygdala, along with impaired information processing by this region.

Opioid abusers face a heightened risk of overdose, particularly with the increased availability of potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl in the illicit drug market. Opioid overdose entails severe respiratory depression that, if not promptly addressed, can lead to hypoxia-related injuries, indicating a lack of sufficient oxygen in the tissues.

Prolonged hypoxia can result in brain injury, leading to confusion, memory problems such as short-term memory loss, behavioral changes, impaired cognitive function, decreased motor skills and reaction time, walking difficulties, paralysis, and incontinence.


Can drugs permanently damage your brain?

While some drugs can cause temporary or permanent alterations to brain function, the extent of permanent damage often depends on factors like the type of drug, dosage, frequency of use, and individual susceptibility.

Can drugs cause permanent damage?

Prolonged use of certain substances can lead to long-term changes in brain chemistry and structure, potentially resulting in permanent damage, although the exact effects may vary based on the specific drug and the person’s health status.

Do drugs kill brain cells?

Although the idea that drugs kill brain cells is a common belief, the actual mechanisms through which drugs affect the brain are more complex, often involving alterations in neurotransmitter systems, neural pathways, and overall brain function rather than direct cell death.

Can you get holes in your brain from drugs?

While some drugs can contribute to the deterioration of brain tissue and function, the concept of developing holes in brain from drugs is not supported by scientific evidence. That said, certain drugs can still lead to severe and potentially irreversible neurological damage.

What do drugs do to your brain?

Drugs can alter the brain’s communication system by disrupting the way nerve cells normally send, receive, and process information, leading to changes in mood, behavior, and cognition. Depending on the type of drug, these alterations can result in temporary feelings of euphoria, increased energy, or relaxation, but can also lead to long-term consequences such as addiction, impaired judgment, and potential damage to brain cells and neurotransmitter systems.

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Find Treatment for Drug Addiction at Drug Rehabs Centers

Do you or a loved one need addiction treatment in California? If so, and if you have no idea where to start your search, reach out to Drug Rehabs Centers for immediate assistance.

Get your recovery started as safely and comfortably as possible with supervised medical detoxification. Take advantage of medications and continuous care to reduce the intensity of the drug withdrawal process. We can connect you with facilities throughout the state of California.

Additionally, we can help you find the most suitable inpatient or outpatient programs for your needs and the severity of your drug addiction. All the rehab centers that we recommend utilize evidence-based treatment to help you move from active drug addiction into ongoing recovery. Call 844.739.2005 today for immediate assistance.

Juan Bonnet
Author: Juan Bonnet


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