Alcohol and Drug-Induced Cognitive Disorders: Types, Causes & Symptoms

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  • 0:06 Substance-Induced…
  • 1:13 Korsakoff's Syndrome
  • 2:46 Substance-Induced Delirium
  • 4:19 Substance-Induced…
  • 6:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

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.

Korsakoff's Syndrome

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.

Substance-Induced Delirium

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.

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