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Fentanyl May Cause Permanent Amnesia When Used with Other Opioids and Illicit Drugs

Fentanyl is one of the deadliest opioids in the U.S., and caused more than 20,000 fatal overdoses in 2016. New evidence suggests that using fentanyl with opioids and other illicit substances like cocaine may lead to permanent brain damage and memory loss. This new finding could shed light on whether additional treatments for amnesia are needed to help fentanyl users fully overcome addiction and learn behaviors that keep them sober.

The Link Between Fentanyl Use and Amnesia


Undetected fentanyl overdose could be causing amnesia in drug users.

A 30-year-old man was recently taken to a West Virginia hospital after he was found in his room surrounded by drug paraphernalia and suffering from apparent short-term memory loss. Toxicology screenings revealed that the man had cocaine in his system, along with norfentanyl — the chemical produced by the body after it breaks down fentanyl. Brain imaging scans also revealed lesions on the man’s brain along the hippocampus — the region of the brain responsible for memory.

Researchers found another case of drug-induced amnesia in Virginia that took place in 2015, and another 14 cases that occurred between 2012 and 2016 in Massachusetts. Though none of these patients were screened for fentanyl, 15 out of the 16 cases tested positive for opioids, with half of those cases also testing positive for cocaine.

Marc Haut, head of behavioral medicine and psychiatry at West Virginia University, says researchers aren’t fully sure of what’s causing amnesia in these cases. But Haut suspects each of these patients suffered an undetected drug overdose that temporarily stopped their heart or lungs to cut off oxygen flow to the brain. Haut says that fentanyl — which is up to 50 times stronger than heroin — may be exacerbating the development of lesions and memory loss problems when used with other powerful substances like cocaine.

How Can Amnesia Be Treated?

When linked to drug addiction, amnesia can be even tougher to overcome, since addiction treatment involves teaching patients how to modify their addictive behaviors. Memory loss can stand in the way of drug users being able to retain new information, and learn the skills needed to build new healthy lives and avoid situations that could lead to relapse.

Fentanyl isn’t the only drug linked to cases of amnesia. Other prescription and illicit drugs found to cause amnesia include antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and opioids including heroin. Many of these substances have been found to alter levels of a brain neurotransmitter called acetylcholine involved with memory and learning.

Amnesia is commonly treated using hypnosis, cognitive therapy, occupational therapy, and neurofeedback. Foods high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids are also shown to improve amnesia in some patients.

Overcoming Addiction and Amnesia At the Same Time

Though permanent amnesia may sound like a scary and hopeless situation, studies show that some medical interventions and treatments are effective at helping patients gain their memories back. Those who seek treatment for both addiction and amnesia must go through a drug detox before being treated for cognition problems.

A drug detox helps eliminate toxins from the body so it can begin its healing process and overcome physical drug dependence. Fentanyl and opioid addiction is commonly treated using a medical detox — a detox protocol in which licensed medical staff are available to monitor your progress 24/7 and dispense medications as needed to relieve withdrawal symptoms and reduce complications.

Following drug detox, patients receive therapy that help them overcome the behavioral aspects of addiction. Those diagnosed with amnesia may receive specialized therapies that help them regain their memories in the form of cognitive-behavioral therapy and nutrition therapy. A 90-day inpatient treatment program is often recommended for patients who need help overcoming both addiction and amnesia.

If you or a loved one needs help overcoming opioid addiction, call our 24/7 confidential helpline at 800-996-6135(Who Answers?) . We’ll discuss all your treatment options, perform a free insurance verification check, and help you find the nearest drug detox center ready to help you become healthier and sober.

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