Neurological Disorders Caused by Substance Abuse

Effects of drugs on the nervous system
What is a neurological disorder:

It is a broad term that describes a number of different conditions that affect the central nervous system. The central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and spinal cord. There are too many neurological conditions that are associated with substance use disorders to fully cover here; however, a few of the major neurological disorders that are associated with substance abuse will be discussed.

Resources about Neurological Disorders and Substance AbuseResources about Neurological Disorders and Substance Abuse

Interested readers can find more information on the neurological effects of substance abuse at the following websites:

Cerebrovascular Accident (strokes)

Cerebral vascular accidents (CVA), more commonly referred to as strokes,result from conditions that disrupt or limit the blood to all or certain parts of the brain.

There are number of ways to classify CVAs. The most basic method is to classify them as either:

  • Ischemic CVAs: These occur as a result of the blood supply to a specific area being decreased. These decreases can occur as a result of:
    • Embolisms: blockages formed when plaque or material from other areas in the body travels through the bloodstream and gets clogged in the veins or arteries of the brain
    • Thrombosis: clots formed when plaque or material at the particular site obstructs blood flow
    • Hypoperfusion: decreased blood flow due to any number of factors
  • Hemorrhagic CVAs: These occur as a result of a rupture of a vessel or artery in the brain or in the meninges (the layers of matter that cover the brain).

Permanent brain damage from drugsDepending on the scope of the damage, the results of the CVA can be localized, or they can be very general in nature. The ability to recover from a CVA depends on a number of factors, including the scope of the damage, pre-existing health factors, the person’s age, and the type of stroke, with ischemic strokes typically being more chronic in nature and therefore more difficult to recover from. Individuals can make full recoveries or partial recoveries, depending on a number of these issues. The development of a CVA is dependent on various different factors, including genetic and lifestyle factors, including diet, exercise, and substance use history.

Several drugs of abuse are associated with an increased risk to develop CVAs. The major drugs associated with CVA are:

  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco products
  • Stimulant drugs (e.g., cocaine, methamphetamine, methylphenidate, ecstasy, and many other amphetamines)
  • Narcotic medications and opioid drugs, such as Vicodin, OxyContin, morphine, and heroin
  • PCP (angel dust)
  • Anabolic steroids
  • Cannabis (however, the associations between cannabis and CVA appear to be mild)

Most of these drugs are associated with ischemic damage to the brain; however, stimulant drugs, including cocaine and PCP, are also drugs with a high potential to produce hemorrhagic CVAs, especially during overdoses or binges.


Substance induced persisting dementiaDementia is another umbrella term that includes a number of neurological conditions. The term dementia is associated with a decrease of intellect and cognitive functions, particularly beginning with memory loss and often progressing to include other cognitive functions, such as expressive and receptive language abilities, attention and concentration, the ability to make judgments and plan, and visual-spatial abilities. There are literally hundreds of disorders that can result in some form of dementia, and there are many different types of dementia that have been recognized.

Dementia is most often the result of some chronic condition, although individuals who experience acute trauma to the brain may develop syndromes that are very similar to dementia. A number of drugs of abuse have been associated with the development of dementia in individuals.

These include:

  • Alcohol: Chronic alcohol abuse is believed to be a direct cause of many different types of dementia.
  • Any drug: All drugs that can potentially result in CVAs can produce dementia associated with the occurrence of the CVA.
  • Benzodiazepines: These drugs are commonly used in the treatment of anxiety. Long-term abuse of these drugs is noted to produce some long-lasting cognitive effects, including issues with memory, attention, and problem-solving. Chronic abuse of these drugs may increase the risk of developing dementia.
  • Marijuana: Chronic use of marijuana is also known to result in loss of intellectual functions in individuals. No direct connection has been observed, but it has been speculated that chronic abuse of cannabis products may be a risk factor for the development of dementia in some individuals.

In addition, individuals with chronic alcoholism may develop a syndrome known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which includes severe dementia in its presentation. The syndrome is not a result of alcohol abuse directly, but as a result of severe dietary deficiencies in thiamine that often occur in alcoholics who do not eat properly for long periods of time.


Drugs that have primary stimulant actions that may cause seizuresSeizures result from changes in the electrical activity in the brain and may produce issues with thinking, movement, and bodily control. Seizures can occur as a result of a number of different neurological disorders. There are several drugs of abuse that are associated with the development of seizures under certain conditions.

The most common of these are:

  • Most of the drugs that have primary stimulant actions, such as cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, and other amphetamines, may produce seizures when taken in high doses.
  • Alcohol withdrawal is known to produce seizures in individuals who have severe alcohol use disorders. These seizures can be potentially fatal.
  • Withdrawal from benzodiazepines is also known to produce potentially fatal seizures in some individuals with severe benzodiazepine use disorders.
  • Many of the new “designer drugs” may result in the development of seizures.
  • Mixing certain types of drugs, such as alcohol and stimulants or alcohol and benzodiazepines, may result in the development of seizures.
  • Individuals developing CVAs that are associated with drug abuse may also develop seizures.

Seizures are often temporary manifestations of drug abuse(except in the case of individuals who have CVAs or other severe brain damage as a result of heavy drug abuse).


Chronic use of a number of different types drugs may cause of ataxiaAtaxia refers to conditions that affect coordination or body movements in an individual. Chronic use of a number of different drugs may result in the development of ataxia. Of course, neurological conditions, such as stroke and dementia that may be related to substance abuse, can also result in ataxia. Chronic use of other drugs is known to directly be associated with ataxia, such as organic solvents (inhalants) and PCP (angel dust).


Encephalopathy refers to brain damage that is associated with altered mental states. Encephalopathy is often considered a complication of some other primary issue, such as cirrhosis of the liver or lack of oxygen to the brain. In some cases, the effects of encephalopathy can be reduced by treatment, and in other cases, when the damage is extensive, it may not be able to be reversed at all.

Encephalopathy cause brain damage that may not reversedObviously, any chronic drug abuse that affects liver functions may also result of the development of encephalopathy in an individual. The primary drugs that produce liver damage include alcohol, other central nervous system depressants such as opioid drugs and benzodiazepines, and cocaine and other stimulants or amphetamines.

Drugs that produce decreased respiration or result in individuals becoming comatose as a result of using too much of the drug can result in the development of encephalopathy due to hypoxia (significantly decreased levels of oxygen in the brain). In cases where the individual develops anoxia (a total lack of oxygen to the brain), the damage associated with encephalopathy may be permanent. Most often, this includes drugs that have central nervous system depressant actions, such as alcohol, narcotic painkillers, benzodiazepines, and sedatives. Any drugs used in high doses that result in direct brain damage may produce encephalopathy.

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