Since 2012, doctors in Massachusetts have observed a most unusual kind of patient just 14 times—or, 14 times that we know about. It all started with Max Meehan, who was taken to the hospital after his behavior freaked out his family: his memory had suddenly vanished. "The kid was amnestic," neurologist Yuval Zabar says of the then-23-year-old, and what Zabar found when he reviewed an MRI scan of Meehan's brain essentially freaked him out: As BuzzFeed puts it, two bright white orbs where there should have been gray, each "perfectly localized" to both hippocampi, which plays a crucial role in the formation of memories. Zabar had never seen it before, but it wasn't a total anomaly: Doctors in the state have now identified 13 more people who experienced the same white orbs and memory issues, and one of their commonalities, with two exceptions, is opioid use.
In Meehan's case, he shot up heroin and collapsed before waking to a seeming inability to form new memories, leaving him in a state that forced him to drop out of college and made it difficult to hold a job. Memory improvements came slowly over two years. "The only thing that seems to parallel" the condition—which has been named CHIAS, for complete hippocampal ischemic amnestic syndrome—"is fentanyl use," says another Massachusetts neurologist. Among the many varied theories: that there was a toxin in the drugs ingested, or that persistent fentanyl use results in severe respiratory issues that may deprive those parts of the brain of oxygen. For now, state public health officials are pushing the mystery forward by branding CHIAS a "reportable disease," meaning the state will have to be alerted to any new cases. Read the full piece. (Read more Longform stories.)