Content reviewed by Nicholas G. Glines, Executive Director at New Hope Ranch

There is no question that substance use affects the brain, particularly cognitive functioning. Repeated drug use interferes with the way that brain areas communicate with one another, which causes impairments in functions including decision-making, stress management and impulse control, among many others.

When discussing ways that the brain is affected by drug use and abuse, one function that may be particularly overlooked is memory and associated memory loss. Substance use affects brain areas essential for facilitating concentration, focus and learning, often resulting in significant memory loss. It is necessary to acknowledge how drug abuse affects memory to understand better the harmful consequences of substance use, even for individuals who may use substances in moderation.

The Brain and Memory

Our brain is constantly interpreting the stimuli around us. Every day, we have different life experiences that often result in us learning new things. Despite our brain’s complexity, it cannot remember every detail of everything we experience. As a result, every person’s brain has to filter out what is worth remembering from what is not. Memory defines this process of storing and recalling information we interpret from our environment.

Concentration and Learning

From birth, we are constantly learning. Our brain develops deeper connections through our everyday life experiences. When we learn something new, our brain grows new neurons and makes new connections with different brain areas. As we go about our lives, our brain sorts and routes information and acknowledges which information is worth remembering.

Concentration plays an essential factor in our ability to learn. Concentration is the mental ability to focus your mind on a single thought, experience or task. When paying attention to a single stimulus, our brain filters important information from irrelevant interruptions, and good concentration enhances memory.

Drug Use, Addiction and Memory

Drug use alters typical brain structure and function in nearly all brain areas. Once a person begins to engage in substance use regularly, their brain spends much of its time adapting to the substance. In turn, their brain and body quickly become motivated by substance use rather than natural rewards such as eating, socializing or having sex. The brain becomes fixated on the pleasure it perceives from substance use and works to constantly motivate substance-seeking and substance-using behavior to achieve those feelings of pleasure.

Similarly, a person that develops a substance use addiction often experiences conflicts with concentration and focus because their brain is actively working to seek out substance use. Although an individual may try to engage in work or other activities that involve concentration, their brain will unlikely be able to take in and process information because it is already preoccupied with thinking about and motivating substance use. The brain’s ability to form new memories becomes severely impaired, leading to memory loss.

Once the addiction develops, treatment often becomes the only effective way to reverse cognitive impairments that have been caused by substance use. While many may attempt to quit substance use without treatment, they are at an increased risk of relapse as they lack the resources and knowledge necessary to achieve and sustain sobriety. It is imperative that an individual works to achieve lifelong abstinence because even after several years of sobriety, an individual can quickly fall back into the cycle of addiction and associated cognitive impairments from engaging in substance use just once.

The Multistage Model of Addiction

During drug use and addiction, memory is affected not only through repeated use but by other stimuli, such as the features of the environment where substance use occurs.

The multistage model of addiction recognizes that individuals that struggle with repeated drug use and addiction do so from a learning process of drug-stimulus associations. For example, an individual who engages in substance use will perceive their using environment as significant, which causes the brain to associate the features of the environment with the feelings of pleasure from drug use. Similarly, when the individual encounters similar environmental features elsewhere, their brain will surface powerful associations with substance use, motivating them to engage in substance-seeking or substance-using behavior.

Developmental Concerns from Drug Use

Another element that determines how memory is affected by drug use is maturity, including developmental status and age. While drug use can and does impair cognitive functioning for individuals of any age, youth is particularly vulnerable as one’s brain is still in its early developmental stage. Substance use during adolescence can lead to a surplus of mental health problems, including memory loss and reduced ability to learn.

New Hope Ranch is a men’s-only addiction treatment facility that recognizes the physical, mental and social harms caused by substance use. We offer a supportive and comforting healing environment for anyone seeking recovery. Call us today at (737) 600-8565.