Cognitive Deterioration Associated With Drug Use

The consumption of psychoactive substances can have short and long-term negative effects on our cognitive processes.
Cognitive Deterioration Associated With Drug Use

Last update: 08 February, 2024

Is there some sort of cognitive deterioration associated with drug use? The answer is quite clear: yes. Sooner or later, drug use affects the brain in one way or another. Not only that, but the effect is always negative.

Studies show that each year, more than 20,000 people die prematurely as a consequence of excessive alcohol consumption. Don’t forget that alcohol is also a drug. What’s different about alcohol is that our society normalizes its use. But what about other drugs?

Every year, more than 4,000 people are admitted to hospitals in Spain for drug-induced psychosis. This is an upward trend. According to the National Strategic Action Plan to fight drugs, in the last ten years, the number of people admitted for drug-induced psychosis increased by 103%. 

There are a number of studies that support the idea that frequent drug use causes significant damage. Not only that, but it seems that the impacts of drug use are difficult to reverse. It doesn’t matter how early the intervention comes.

Why do people use drugs?

This isn’t an easy question to answer. In fact, it would be impossible to attribute every case to a single cause. It’s true that there’s a genuine social concern about drug use, but we still don’t know much about it.

There’s a lot of talk about drugs and drug use, but we tend to just talk in circles. People repeat a lot of false information and say things that don’t make sense.

People also tend to associate drugs with two things: youth and crime. As such, the information that we get is biased from the get-go. Drug abuse causes serious health problems. Not only that, but it’s at the root of a lot of crime and family conflict.

stressed drug user

Frequent and intense drug use definitely impacts the body. On the other hand, we can’t isolate these recreational substances from the society that has made this wild increase in consumption possible.

Not only that, social circles are so often the facilitators and even motivators of drug use. Our society normalizes drug use. The negative effects of drug use are ignored, along with the fact that drug use intensifies the problems that the person is trying to avoid.

How does drug use cause cognitive deterioration?

Drug abuse can cause morphological changes in the brain structure. These changes have the following effects:

  • Loss of brain volume.
  • Reduction of the percentage of grey matter.
  • A decrease in ventricular cerebrospinal fluid.
  • A widening of the pericortical space and both lateral ventricles. 
  • A decrease in neuron size.
  • Neuronal death.
  • Brain atrophy.

At the same time, drug use causes damage through the metabolic reorganization of the synaptic connectivity circuits. Metabolic reorganization happens as a result of tolerance, abstinence, and withdrawal.

These processes are common with all addictions. They cause biochemical adaptations in the systems that control dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline. 

These neurotransmitters interact with glutamate receptors. They can block the long-term strengthening and repression mechanisms in the hippocampus and the nucleus accumbens.

Lastly, they can cause cerebral vascularization changes, blood vessel constriction, intraparenchymal and subarachnoid brain hemorrhage, and cerebral infarction It seems, then, that the negative consequences of drug use are significant.

Now we know that drug-related brain damage is a reality. But how does drug use affect cognitive performance?

In terms of memory, people who consume more alcohol and cannabis than cocaine and other drugs have worse short-term memory. The longer the period of consumption, the bigger the impact it has on working memory.

woman with brain damage due to drug use

In terms of executive functions, patients who have been using cannabis and alcohol for longer have a diminished interference capacity. That means that they exhibit reduced inhibition of automatic responses.

We also know that drug users have diminished alternating attention. They need more time to carry out activities that require sequential and logical thought. However, alcohol and cannabis users experience milder side effects in other areas. For example, they maintain their phonological verbal fluidity.

As you can see, drug use triggers neuropsychological and neuroanatomical changes. These changes produce functional neuroadaptation in cognitive, motivational, behavioral, and emotional functions. As a result, the day-to-day psychosocial functioning and quality of life of the user are also affected.

These altered functions have to do with attention span, concentration, integration, information processing, and execution of specific action plans. 

Not only that but according to the bio-psycho-social explanation, these modifications play an important role. When we look at addiction from a wider and ideographic point of view, they act as variables that sustain drug use.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.