Everyone knows the risks with driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But did you also know that long-term alcohol and drug use can cause problems with the way your brain functions? In this lesson, we'll look closer at some common substance-induced cognitive disorders.
Substance-Induced Cognitive Disorders
Lori has always been the life of the party. From a young age, she began drinking wine and mixed drinks on a regular basis. For many years now, she has needed several alcoholic drinks to even get through the day.
But recently, something is wrong. No matter how hard she tries or how many times she meets someone, she can't remember new faces and names. Not only that, but she's lost some of her memories from the past: simple details, like where she and her husband spent their honeymoon, are just gone.
Lori is suffering from amnesia, a cognitive disorder that involves losing memories or losing the ability to make new memories. Amnesia is one type of cognitive disorder, a general term for psychological issues that involve losing the ability to think normally.
Cognitive issues can be caused by many things: age, a blow to the head, disease, and many other issues. One major cause of cognitive problems is alcohol and drug abuse. Let's look closer at some substance-induced cognitive disorders.
Remember Lori? She has been a heavy drinker for many years and is showing signs of amnesia. Lori might be suffering from Korsakoff's syndrome, a disease where long-term alcohol abuse causes psychological defects, including amnesia.
There are several major symptoms of Korsakoff's syndrome: amnesia, as we've seen, is one. Sometimes, when patients cannot remember blocks of time, they confabulate, or make up memories to take the place of the missing ones. Many patients also show a lack of insight and apathy.
Alcohol abuse can cause a deficiency of thiamin, a vitamin that's essential for healthy functioning. Over time, a lack of thiamin can cause damage to some areas of the brain that are associated with memory. This is the cause of Korsakoff's syndrome: a long-term deficiency in thiamin leads to brain damage, which then leads to the symptoms of the disorder.
As you might expect, Korsakoff's syndrome is treated with thiamin. Patients given thiamin supplements show that the disease slows and in some cases reverses. Though complete recovery is usually out of reach, some reversal is possible for patients taking thiamin supplements.
In addition, therapy can help patients use the memories and abilities they still have to lead fuller lives. Strategies, like using digital reminders and notes to oneself, can help patients get around the memory loss associated with Korsakoff's syndrome.
Besides amnesia, another type of cognitive disorder is delirium, which is a sudden onset of confusion and disorientation. Delirium, like amnesia, can have several causes, one of which is substance abuse.
Lori's friend, Gabe, started having some issues a couple of days ago. He wakes up fine, but by midday it's clear that there's something wrong. He seems out of it to his friends, and doesn't really seem to know what's going on around him. By the time evening comes around, he's confused and disoriented; he doesn't seem to know what day or time it is.
Gabe has been taking drugs for many years. He takes lots of different pills and often washes them down with alcohol. Like many people who suffer from delirium, Gabe is starting to get on in age. His older age makes him more vulnerable to problems, like delirium, and he's been taking drugs for so many years that it's finally starting to catch up with him!
Like Gabe, people who suffer from substance-induced delirium are generally long-term drug and alcohol users, though it is possible to go into a delirious state the first time you take a drug. Delirium often comes on very quickly, in a matter of hours and days, and the symptoms tend to fluctuate during the day.
Some types of drug-induced delirium respond to other drugs, but treatment of substance-induced delirium often focuses on management of the condition. Placing large calendars or clocks nearby can help patients with confusion over the day and time, and having friends and family nearby can provide needed support.
Substance-Induced Persisting Dementia
Besides Korsakoff's syndrome and delirium, another cognitive disorder that is a result of drug or alcohol abuse is called substance-induced dementia. Dementia is a type of cognitive deficit that involves memory loss and at least one of the following: problems with language or recognizing objects, problems with motor movements, or issues with problem-solving and abstract thinking.
Gabe's ex-wife, Sally, also took drugs and drank alcohol a lot when they were younger. Five years ago, Sally became sober. But about two years ago, she began to have issues with her memory. She began forgetting how to drive home. Sometimes, she'd drive all the way to the grocery store and then not remember anything that she needed to buy.
In addition, Sally sometimes has trouble finding the right words. It's almost like everything she ever knew has just disappeared from her brain. One day, she stared at her keys for a very long time, trying to remember what they were.
Sally is displaying signs of dementia. Sometimes dementia can look a lot like delirium, but dementia usually develops over years, not days or hours.
Like other cognitive disorders, dementia can be caused by excessive alcohol and drug use. In fact, anyone who's ever had too much to drink might recognize some of Sally's behaviors! But remember that Sally has been sober for five years. What gives?
When substance abuse is the cause of dementia, but the dementia occurs or continues after the immediate effects of drugs and alcohol have worn off, it is called substance-induced persisting dementia. The 'persisting' is because the dementia persists past the intoxication or withdrawal.
Like other cognitive disorders, substance-induced dementia is usually treated with symptom management. Having a strong support system - and in some cases, a full-time caretaker - can help patients get through the worst of the dementia. Though substance-induced dementia is not curable, abstaining from drugs and alcohol can, in some cases, help patients improve a little bit.
Cognitive disorders are psychological issues that involve losing the ability to think normally. There are many causes of cognitive disorders, including drug and alcohol abuse. Three major cognitive disorders caused by drug and alcohol abuse are: Korsakoff's syndrome, substance-induced delirium, and substance-induced dementia.
You should be able to perform the following tasks after completing this lesson:
- Recognize cognitive disorders caused by alcohol and drugs
- Identify Korsakoff's syndrome
- Recall facts related to substance-induced delirium
- Remember details about substance-induced dementia