Q. Can experimenting with street drugs really cause damage to my brain and can such damage be reversed?

A. First, all drugs affect the brain in some way or another. Second, if you're speaking of drugs of abuse, reports from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) indicate that specific brain changes can and do occur and that they are likely causes of the persistent cognitive and/or motor capability losses associated with many drugs of abuse. What types of brain changes can occur? Here are some examples:

  • Drugs that are inhaled can strip the protective myelin sheath from brain fibers. This can produce a variety of deleterious effects including reduced vision and hearing, impaired movement, and lowered cognitive ability (even to the point of dementia). The inhalation of heroin (e.g., chasing the dragon) has resulted in some young people developing large brain lesions that leave them nearly comatose.
  • Cocaine causes microscopic strokes in the brain. These repeated injuries lead to dead spots in the brain's nerve pathways. Cocaine use can also cause abnormal blood flow in the frontal lobes.
  • MDMA (Methylenedioxymethamphetamine) damages neurons that produce serotonin. This can influence the regulation of aggression, sexual activity, sleep, mood, and even sensitivity to pain.
  • Methamphetamines can amplify the normal process by which the brain destroys defective cells (apoptosis). This can increase to the point where healthy cells are eliminated, as well. Some methamphetamine abusers have developed a syndrome characterized by uncontrollable tremors similar to those seen in Parkinson's disease.

In response to the second part of your question: Is drug-associated brain dysfunction reversible? Perhaps. Sometime in the future. NIDA is currently supporting research projects that use new brain imaging techniques to evaluate the full impact of current medication and behavioral treatment on brain neurology and biochemistry. Ultimately, researchers envision developing a process for helping restore abilities impaired through the abuse of drugs. The proposed formula would involve interventions to stop ongoing brain damage, techniques to repair damaged brain cells, and then retraining strategies.

This information is one of the reasons that I'm so prevention-oriented. It's usually easier to avoid damage than to reverse it. Does this mean that individuals who have experienced some damage to their brain should despair? Absolutely not! The brain is an amazing organ and has more ability to repair itself or to retrain itself than has been previously believed.

Ralph Marston said it very well: “Ultimately, the things that most affect the quality of your life are your decisions.” It's rarely too late to make positive life-style changes. Unfortunately, some never decide to begin!


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