Sunday, February 18, 2018 by Rhonda Johansson
Kati Mather, who received the dubious honor of being the “face of the fentanyl addiction epidemic of America” two years ago, once described the drug’s effects as “very powerful…there’s no ride, it’s just BOOM.” And while Mather’s words suggested an explosion of pain relief often reported by regular fentanyl users, her words now imply a far more devastating consequence of the opioid — it can lead to a very rare yet severe form of amnesia.
Researchers from West Virginia University have just concluded that fentanyl — taken alone or in combination with other stimulants — dramatically increases the risk of developing amnesia. Authors of the new study found evidence that the powerful opioid injures the brain and makes it difficult, if not impossible, for substance users to form new memories. The team built on previous reports made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which concluded that fentanyl users were being diagnosed with an unusual form of amnesia. The amnesia was noted to be temporary but persisted for around five months to a year in some patients.
It is hypothesized that the opioid diminishes the supply of oxygen that reaches the hippocampus region.
This is not the first time that opioid use has been linked to neurological changes; yet this is perhaps the most worrying. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and works far quicker than any other pain relief medication. Because it is fat soluble, the onset of action is extremely fast; users feel the “rush” immediately. This contributes to a hastened tolerance rate among its users and a significant risk in overdosing. The drug causes the respiratory system to shut down, which can cause various organs to receive an inadequate supply of oxygen.
Dr. David Edwards who is an assistant professor of clinical anesthesiology at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee said, “the doses in the brain can get really high really fast, so I am imagining it could occur in these patients where the doses are so high it became [sic] kind of anesthetic.”
Fentanyl users are at a higher risk of overdosing because the opioid has an “additive effect.” Like most pain relief drugs, users develop a tolerance for them pretty quickly and need more just to experience the same “high.” Fentanyl, being more potent, causes more damage though. Brain scans of fentanyl overdose patients have shown that the drug causes severe damage to the brain. The main characteristic of the damage is memory loss; although scientists speculate that other symptoms may arise from the neurological changes. However, they say that more research is needed to fully determine how fentanyl damages the brain.
Marc W. Haut who co-wrote the study said, “most people are thinking about fentanyl because of overdose deaths. But we also need to be thinking about overdose survivors.”