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During active addiction, chronic drug use impacts cognitive, emotional, and physical well-being. Substance use often affects different aspects of one’s life in ways that many people do not consider initially. The brain regions associated with addiction and drug use cause changes in other parts of the brain that support cognitive processes. Different drugs have different effects on cognitive functioning; most drugs can make it difficult for you to concentrate, set and achieve goals, or pay attention to what is happening around you. 

With continuing drug use, you become much more likely to experience cognitive deficits and greater difficulty establishing long-term abstinence. Memory loss comes at the hands of drug use and addiction. Most drug users or individuals recovering from addiction have experienced cognitive deficits and other symptoms of cognitive distress, but neglect to understand how substances function in the brain. Becoming aware of these consequences can help you to make the best decisions for yourself and for your mind moving forward. 

Drug Use in the Brain

To understand what drug addiction looks like in the brain, it is important to first understand how the brain works. The brain is like a complex computer system, with billions of little neurons working together to establish a flow of information. Every area of the brain is responsible for different functions, such as regulating emotions, recalling memories, or completing tasks. It is also key to understand the importance of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters work with neurons to release messages to other neurons within the brain, signaling different parts of the brain to react in a specific way. 

Drug use and addiction manifest because of an imbalance in the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine creates feelings of pleasure, as it is a major part of the brain’s reward system. With drug use, dopamine concentrations are pushed to extra high levels, well beyond what can be achieved as a natural, sober feeling of euphoria. Once the brain is introduced to these dopamine levels, it adapts and builds a tolerance. When the brain is deprived of the substance, cravings start to occur, as well as symptoms of withdrawal. 

Drug Use and Cognitive Functioning

Now that you understand how drug use can affect the brain’s reward mechanism, you can also understand how it affects cognitive functioning similarly. Drug use ultimately takes away from the present moment, which has the ability to alter our own understanding of what is happening in the here and now, affecting our ability to retain memories. Many individuals may have experienced memory loss from drinking as a major side effect of heavy alcohol use. 

The developing brain, specifically, is incredibly susceptible to the effects of drug use and addiction. This means prenatal, childhood, and adolescent exposures are likely to produce long-lasting alterations in cognition. The human brain is always developing, but these periods specifically are responsible for the formation and initial build of neural pathways in the brain. 

Nicotine is a familiar example of how drug use can produce cognitive changes in the brain, especially when you consider withdrawal symptoms. The cognitive consequences that tend to be associated with the withdrawal from drugs seem temporary, although withdrawal symptoms can motivate relapse and, in turn, motivate more intense use. The nature of cognitive decline varies in regard to the drug itself (as well as the intensity and duration of use), the environment of the user, and the genetic makeup of the user. Even then, drug use inevitably impairs your ability to learn and retain new patterns of thought as well as behavior. This is why treatment for addiction recovery is as difficult as it is. 

Drug Use And Memory Loss Example: Marijuana 

Another example of how drug use affects cognitive functioning can be understood when considering the impacts of marijuana on the brain. Various studies have linked marijuana use to cognitive decline in IQ as well as memory impairment. A study by the CDC used rats to find that marijuana use alters the hippocampus in the brain. This brain region is associated with memory formation as well as memory recall. Rats exposed to the psychoactive component of marijuana (THC) soon after birth or during adolescence showed noticeable issues with learning and memory later in life. 

There was also extensive nerve damage and nerve cell loss for rats exposed to heavy and repeated use. Although different drugs produce different effects, there are noticeable long-term consequences in cognitive functioning for drug users. By bringing awareness to these consequences, you can make more sound decisions for yourself and your actions moving forward. Drug use of any kind comes with consequences. When it comes to deficits in your cognitive functioning, it is important that you know what you are getting yourself into. 

Drug use of any kind affects different elements of our physical, cognitive, social, and mental functioning. Our cognitive functioning is our ability to learn and retain information, stay engaged in tasks, and recall memories from our past. Different drugs produce different effects on our cognitive functioning, although almost all drugs cause short-term impairment. With repeated or heavy use, long-term impairment and cognitive deficits become increasingly more likely. As drug use and addiction functions and a system of reward in the brain, your brain is likely to attach itself to the feelings of pleasure associated with continuing drug use. Your brain becomes obsessed with these feelings and cravings, so there is less attention available to focus on the present moment or to retain memories. West Coast Recovery Centers prioritize addiction and mental health recovery, valuing supported healing. For more information about the treatment options we offer, call us at (760) 492-6509

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