Cluster of Amnesia Cases in Opioid Users Puzzles Doctors

They can't explain the phenomenon in Massachusetts
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 4, 2017 2:48 PM CST
A Scary New Risk for Opioid Users: Amnesia
A University of Massachusetts Medical School student demonstrates emergency treatment of opioid overdose to actor-patients.   (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

As if opioid addiction isn't bad enough on its own, something else is going on in eastern Massachusetts (and possibly beyond) that is worrying public health officials. Doctors have identified 14 opioid users who have suffered amnesia, and they can't explain why. While memory loss in and of itself isn't unusual among drug users, brain imaging shows something strange, reports PBS. Almost no blood was flowing to the hippocampus area of the brain, which is associated with memory. In fact, hippocampus neurons seemed to be specifically targeted, reports Atlantic, which is highly unusual. Nor is it clear how permanent the damage is. Doctors followed up with three of the patients and found that one had recovered his short-term memory in five months, while two others continued to suffer problems one and two years later.

“What we’re concerned about is maybe a contaminant or something else added to the drug might be triggering this,” says state health official Alfred DeMaria, author of a new report for the CDC. “Traditionally there’s no evidence that the drugs themselves can do this.” One possible culprit could be a synthetic opioid such as fentanyl. The patients ranged in age from 19 to 52, and some of them were brought to the hospital by relatives when they were unable to recognize loved ones. All but one had a history of substance use disorder, and the 14th tested positive for opiates and cocaine. The cluster came to light when one doctor noticed a pattern in four patients, then spread the word. The publication of the CDC report is expected to unearth more cases around the nation. (More people now use prescription opioids than tobacco.)

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