Neurological Disorders & Brain Damage Caused by Drug Misuse

A neurological disorder 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. While there are far too many neurological conditions that are associated with substance use disorders to cover them all here, this article will discuss some of the major neurological disorders that are associated with substance use disorders.

Which Neurological Disorders Are Caused by Drug Use?

Addiction among different groups can present a number of health issues for any one of these demographics particularly. However, there are numerous neurological disorders that can be caused by drug use — regardless of demographic. Some of these include:

  • Cerebrovascular accident.
  • Dementia.
  • Seizures.
  • Ataxia.
  • Encephalopathy brain damage.

Stroke Caused by Drug Use

One of the medical conditions that occur with addiction are cerebral vascular accidents (CVA), more commonly referred to as strokes. They 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).

Depending 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.
  • 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:

  • Genetics.
  • Lifestyle.
  • Diet.
  • Exercise.
  • Substance use history.

Several drugs are associated with an increased risk of developing 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.

Dementia Caused by Drug Use

The term dementia is an umbrella term for a number of neurological conditions that are 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.
  • Visual-spatial abilities.

There are 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 misuse have been associated with the development of dementia in individuals.

Which Drugs Can Cause Dementia?

  • Alcohol: Chronic alcohol use 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 misuse of these drugs is noted to produce some long-lasting cognitive effects, including issues with memory, attention, and problem-solving. Chronic misuse 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 use of cannabis products may be a risk factor for the development of dementia in some individuals.

Seizures Caused by Drug Use

Seizures result from changes in the electrical activity in the brain and may produce issues with:

  • Thinking.
  • Movement.
  • Bodily control.

Seizures can occur as a result of a number of different neurological disorders. There are several drugs that are associated with the development of seizures under certain conditions.

Which Drugs Can Cause Seizures?

  • 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 misuse (except in the case of individuals who have CVAs or other severe brain damage as a result of heavy drug abuse).

Ataxia Caused by Drug Use

Ataxia 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. Additionally, neurological conditions, such as stroke and dementia that may be related to substance use, 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 & Liver Damage Caused by Drug Use

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, the long-term effects may not be able to be reversed at all.

Any chronic drug misuse that affects liver functions may also result of the development of encephalopathy in an individual.

Which Drugs Can Cause Liver Damage?

  • Alcohol.
  • Opioids.
  • Benzodiazepines.
  • 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.
  • Sedatives.

Any drugs used in high doses that result in direct brain damage may produce encephalopathy.

Resources about Neurological Disorders and Substance Use Disorders

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

If you or someone you love are struggling with substance use, help is available. Sunrise House—an inpatient rehab facility in New Jersey—provides personalized addiction treatment. Call a caring admissions navigator at to learn more about our types of addiction treatment, to find out more about ways to cover the cost of treatment, and to  start treatment today.

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