When people are addicted to illegal drugs, their lives automatically take on more risk. They are reliant on a substance to maintain their well-being, when in fact the substance is working against their body. They also have to operate outside of the law to procure the substance, often escalating the risk of harm to themselves and others in the pursuit of more of their substance of choice. Sometimes their body reacts in terrible ways and they choose to use drugs that cause memory loss.

However, the body also reacts to illegal drugs in very destructive ways. Most people associate memory loss with a traumatic head injury or Alzheimer’s Disease. However, among the many side effects of substance abuse is memory loss. It’s important to know the effects of illegal drugs if you or someone you love is suffering from illegal drug abuse.

What Are Illicit Drugs?

In a general sense, illicit drugs are intoxicating and addictive substances that are also illegal to use, purchase, sell, or carry. These may include:

  • Heroin
  • Ayahuasca
  • DMT (the pure psychoactive element of ayahuasca)
  • Methamphetamine
  • Synthetic cannabis
  • Khat (not in plant form)
  • Synthetic cathinones (bath salts)
  • Rohypnol
  • Salvia (laws vary by area)
  • LSD
  • Cocaine
  • Ketamine
  • Fentanyl
  • PCP
  • Ecstasy
  • MDMA (the pure psychoactive element of ecstasy)
  • Peyote

Please note that this list reflects illegal substances in the United States, including those that may be used in religious contexts in certain cultures.

Illicit drugs, as a rule, are often much more dangerous to use than legalized intoxicating substances (such as alcohol and occasionally cannabis) because there is no oversight of the content or strength of the substances. Criminal activity often surrounds the production and sale of these substances, which increases the danger and lack of incentive for oversight of the substances. It is also typically harder to become clean and sober after becoming addicted to these substances, although it highly differs by person.

Addiction and Memory Loss: What’s the Connection?

Most physical destruction as a result of addiction is highly connected to the type of substance to which the person is addicted. But illegal drugs are especially destructive to the body due to the abundance of chemicals and unnatural ingredients. These substances can lead to destructive deterioration of the body, especially in the brain.

Why is Memory Loss A Significant Factor of Illegal Drug Use?

Drugs like cocaine, meth, and even alcohol can impair memory function. This can lead to both short-term and long-term memory deficits. Chronic drug use can cause structural changes in the brain, further exacerbating memory problems. This is why it’s important to tap into addiction resources as early as possible in the recovery process.

But memory loss can be caused by illegal drug use in particular due to the neurological effects of certain substances on the brain’s hippocampus, a region of the brain that is crucial for memory formation and retrieval. Illegal drugs can damage memory because of several factors:

Potency and Chemical Composition

Illegal drugs like heroin and molly often contain highly concentrated and potent psychoactive substances, leading to more pronounced effects on brain functions like memory impairment.

Lack of Regulation

Illegal drugs are not subject to quality control or regulation, so their composition and purity can vary significantly. There is also a higher risk of the substances being fake versions of the intended substance, often containing elements such as fentanyl without the user’s knowledge. This variability can increase the risk of adverse effects, including memory loss.

Mode of Administration

Many illegal drugs are consumed via routes that allow for rapid delivery to the brain, such as injecting, or snorting. This can lead to faster and more intense effects on cognitive function compared to legal drugs. These are typically taken orally and metabolize in the body much more slowly.


Some illegal drugs, such as MDMA and ecstasy, exert neurotoxic effects on the brain, damaging neurons and disrupting neurotransmitter systems involved in memory formation and retrieval. MDMA in particular has been shown in clinical trials to increase the risk of problems with long-term memory and learning.

Higher Risk of Addiction

Illegal drugs are often more addictive than legal drugs, due to the higher amounts of dopamine they can facilitate throughout the brain. Prolonged substance abuse can exacerbate memory damage thanks to the sheer impact on the brain over time.

Can Drug Addiction Cause Amnesia?

Addiction to any substance may affect brain composition and/or growth. But this may not strictly correspond with the actual condition of amnesia. Chronic substance abuse can harm brain regions crucial for memory formation and retrieval. There is also a risk for substance-induced blackouts, where individuals experience memory gaps during periods of intoxication.

Does Illicit Drug Use Cause Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease?

There is no established direct link between illicit drug use and Alzheimer’s disease. But there needs to be more study on how illicit substances affect the brain to say this for certain. Chronic drug abuse can definitely damage the brain structures and neurotransmitter systems involved in memory and cognition. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are primarily associated with genetic and age-related factors, but environmental and lifestyle factors may also play a role.

How Illegal Drugs Cause Memory Problems Or Memory Loss

A normal brain maintains a balanced neurotransmitter system, with regulated levels of dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters, supporting healthy brain function. In contrast, the brain of a drug-addicted person undergoes significant alterations in neurotransmitter activity and brain structure due to prolonged substance abuse. Of course, this also depends on the type of drug a person abuses and for what period of time.

Chronic drug use leads to dysregulation of dopamine pathways, resulting in decreased sensitivity to natural rewards and heightened craving for drugs. Structural changes, such as reductions in gray matter volume and impaired neuronal connectivity, can also occur. Many drugs, such as opioids, cocaine, and alcohol, manipulate neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). These changes contribute to the development of tolerance, dependence, and addiction, as well as cognitive impairments such as memory loss and difficulties with learning and decision-making.

Can Damage Be Reversed After Drugs Cause Memory Loss?

Whether or not damage from drug use can be reversed is highly dependent on the individual, the severity of their addiction, the type of drug to which they are addicted, and how early in their addiction they stop using the drugs.

It can be possible for the human brain to recover from damage, but it highly depends on the type and extent of damage. These strategies can be undertaken to help heal from the damage based in addiction:

Cessation of Drug Use

Stopping drug use is the first step in allowing the brain to recover and repair itself.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT):

Some medications can aid in the treatment of substance use disorders and associated cognitive deficits. For example, medications used in opioid addiction treatment

Therapy and Counseling

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), counseling, and other forms of therapy can help individuals address underlying issues contributing to substance abuse and develop coping strategies to manage memory loss and other cognitive impairments.

Healthy Lifestyle Changes

Engaging in regular exercise, maintaining a balanced diet, getting adequate sleep, and reducing stress can support overall brain health and facilitate memory improvement.

Cognitive Rehabilitation Programs

These programs involve structured exercises and activities designed to improve cognitive function, including memory, through repetitive practice and targeted interventions.

Neurorehabilitation Techniques

Emerging research in the field of neurorehabilitation explores techniques such as neurofeedback, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and cognitive training programs that aim to enhance brain function and promote neuroplasticity, potentially aiding in memory restoration.

How a Sober Living Home Can Provide Support and Healing

For people working to detoxify from illegal drugs and maintain sobriety, a lot of support may be necessary. It can be hard to find people who understand addiction to drugs that are illegal to obtain, and people who are recovering from addiction to those drugs may feel ashamed or alienated within their recovery.

For many people, the best support can come from living in a designated sober living home. In these environments, individuals are surrounded by other people that are going through the same recovery process as them. They understand cravings, temptations, and the daily struggle to not use substances to cope with everyday stress. The people who live in these environments will be expected to stay sober by everyone living around them. Relapse prevention resources will be readily available, and tests to ensure sobriety are usually conducted regularly.

Seek Sobriety at Monroe Street Sober Living

group of patients sitting in circle during therpay

Becoming sober and building a new life can sometimes seem intimidating. While it may be a long road ahead, you’re not alone. At Monroe Street Sober Living, we work to empower people looking to change their lives. We provide resources to help with the transition to sobriety and to help teach life skills to empower you in your new life. Contact us today to learn more about your options and begin your journey toward recovery.


Skip to content