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A ‘Vicious Cycle’ of Nonfatal Overdoses Causes ‘Alzheimer’s-Like’ Symptoms, Drexel Team Suggests

Prescription bottle with tablets

December 8, 2021

By Greg Richter

Deaths skyrocketing from the nation’s opioid crisis overshadows another growing nightmare for communities and families across the United States: the long-term health effects of nonfatal opioid overdoses.

In a new review paper in International Journal of Drug Policy, Janna Ataiants, DrPH, a senior research scientist, Stephen Lankenau, PhD, professor and associate dean for research, both in the Dornsife School of Public Health, and their colleagues, go beyond opioid-associated deaths and look at previous studies on how an opioid overdose affects brain function and risk behaviors.

The team found a body of knowledge showing that a history of overdoses can lead to neurodegeneration, then feed into risky behaviors and may ultimately result in a new overdose.

“Many people still think of opioid overdose as a strictly life-or-death issue, but fatal overdoses constitute only 3-4% of all overdoses and repeated nonfatal overdoses may have far-reaching consequences for survivors,” said Ataiants. “We need to acknowledge how nonfatal overdoses attack brain cells, perhaps to the point of bringing on symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer’s disease.”

The team looked at the previous research, documenting a possible interconnection between the biochemical, brain and behavior side effects from overdoses that work in conjunction to cause the brain decline that leads to additional, unsafe drug use.

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