Brain damage is a common and potentially severe consequence of long-term, heavy alcohol consumption,” says the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism. Other illicit substances also can adversely affect cognitive functioning. The American Psychological Association (APA) indicates that studies in brain imaging show that “repeated drug use causes disruptions in the brain’s highly evolved frontal cortex, which regulates cognitive activities such as decision-making, response inhibition, planning and memory.” This is similar to results demonstrated by other researchers, leaving researchers to determine the best means of repairing cognition and cognitive functions damaged through addiction.
Knowledge of the fact that drugs damage cognitive functioning is not new. In 2000, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) announced that NIDA-supported scientists were pursuing approaches that showed promise in blocking and even reversing brain damage that occurs with chronic methamphetamine abuse. Brain damage known to occur with chronic meth addiction includes damaged blood vessels and damaged nerve endings in the brain as well as changes in brain chemicals. NIDA said, “These effects put chronic methamphetamine abusers at risk for cognitive impairment and early onset of movement disorders associated with aging.”
The importance of recognizing that drug abuse is much more than a pharmacological disease is pointed out by Elliot A. Stein, Ph.D., neuroscientist at the Medical College of Wisconsin, quoted by the APA as saying that people finally realize that addiction is more than pharmacological. Stein remarked, “It’s a pharmacological and behavioral disease,” and said that one of the difficulties in determining effective treatment strategy is in finding the “magic bullet” to “attack both the pharmacological and the behavioral parts of addiction.”
Alcohol addiction significantly affects cognitive functioning, causing the same types of issues seen in those addicted to other drugs. Acquiring, storing and retrieving information, as well as using information to learn and achieve success, are just some of the difficulties seen in alcoholics suffering from cognitive impairment at alcohol treatment centers.
One of the problems in working with addicts suffering from cognitive impairment is the question of whether difficulties suffered from cognitive impairment can affect recovery outcomes in drug rehab facilities. The National Center for Biotechnology Information concluded that cognitive functioning deficits seem to predict poor treatment outcomes and announced an aim of proposing treatment strategies that not only treat the addiction but also focus on improving cognitive functioning.
While the brain does work to repair itself, abstaining from alcohol and other addictive drugs can help reverse many of the physical changes that occur in the brain during addiction. This knowledge, combined with the use of cognitive behavioral treatments and other therapies, likely has the best chance of helping addicts recover from the cognitive damage caused by their addiction.