A cluster of patients stricken with sudden amnesia has doctors searching for answers. One significant clue? Almost every patient either tested positive for opioids or had a personal history of opioid abuse.
“Looking for a Toxic Effect”
In total, there have been 14 patients identified so far, all of them seen in Eastern Massachusetts hospitals between 2012 and 2016. The striking similarities in their conditions lead doctors to believe that there may be a root cause, perhaps a new syndrome related to substance abuse.
The MRI scan of each patient showed the exact same brain injury to the same specific area—the hippocampus, the structure associated with emotion and memory.
As a result, the patients were all afflicted with anterograde amnesia. This meant that they are unable to form new memories, even though they can still recall earlier memories.
The damage was “ischemic”, which means there was a lack of oxygenated blood flow to the hippocampus, but the injury was too specific and too symmetrical to have been caused by a stroke.
The current prevailing theory is that an unknown contaminant in some new synthetic drug may be the culprit.
“Nobody Was Looking for This”
Obviously, the investigation will continue. But in the meantime, it appears that the opioid link may not be mere coincidence. Moving forward, Dr. Alfred DeMaria, the Massachusetts State Epidemiologist, urges doctors in other states to be on the lookout for similar cases.
It could be that what is usually diagnosed as opioid intoxication may in fact be symptoms of anterograde amnesia. As Dr. DeMaria says, “Maybe this isn’t new. Maybe it was happening all along.”
If the causal link is definitely established, then in will only serve as further proof of the consequences of substance abuse. Here’s the good news—months later, some of the patients showed signs of improvement.
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