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Public health officials on Thursday said they had detected a bizarre cluster of cases in which patients in Massachusetts developed amnesia over the past few years — a highly unusual syndrome that could be connected to opioid use.

The officials have identified only 14 cases so far. But officials said it’s possible that clinicians have simply missed other cases.

The patients were all relatively young — they ranged in age from 19 to 52. Thirteen of the 14 patients identified had a substance use disorder, and the 14th patient tested positive for opioids and cocaine on a toxicology screen.


“What we’re concerned about is maybe a contaminant or something else added to the drug might be triggering this,” said Dr. Alfred DeMaria, the state epidemiologist at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and an author of the new report. “Traditionally there’s no evidence that the drugs themselves can do this.”

The pattern emerged when Dr. Jed Barash, a neurologist at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., reported four of the amnesia cases to the state’s public health department. The department then sent out an alert to specialists, including neurologists and emergency physicians, asking about similar cases, ultimately identifying 10 more from 2012 to 2016 at hospitals in eastern Massachusetts. (The patients included one person who lived in New Hampshire and one person who was visiting Massachusetts from Washington state.)


The patients experienced various memory problems affecting both long- and short-term memory. Some of them arrived at hospitals following overdoses, but in other cases, family members brought in patients who became confused or stopped being able to recognize their relatives or recall basic facts. Some of the patients also struggled with disorientation, attention, and executive function.

In addition to showing the clinical symptoms of amnesia, brain imaging showed a significant reduction in blood flow to the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory, learning, and emotion.

There are only a few case reports in the medical literature of a similar combination of clinical and imaging results, which were a result of cocaine use, influenza, or carbon monoxide poisoning. There was only one case of blood being cut off to the hippocampus as a result of heroin use, from France in 2013.

DeMaria said officials are concerned that increased exposure to synthetic opioids like fentanyl and synthetic marijuana could be playing a role in the recently identified cases. Twelve of the patients had a history of opioid use, and many patients either had a history of using other drugs — including cocaine and benzodiazepines — or tested positive for them.

“The best thing that could happen is, well, no one else has seen this,” he said. But “considering 14 cases in four years, we’re worried we’re going to find more cases.”

The new report appeared in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which is published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The researchers did not have follow-up data on all the patients, but one 19-year-old man recovered his short-term memory within five months, while one 33-year-old woman still had moderate short-term memory loss more than a year later. One 22-year-old man still had attention and processing problems almost two years later.

DeMaria said he and his colleagues had considered whether the memory loss might be a consequence of an overdose, which depresses breathing and means less oxygen gets to the brain. But he said that even though clinicians saw some wider damage on the brain imaging, the effect was so focused in the hippocampus that something beyond an overdose was probably occurring.

But other researchers not involved with the report said they guessed the amnesia could still have been caused by an overdose.

“I don’t really know if there’s any other plausible explanation,” said Dr. Gary Franklin, a research professor at the University of Washington and fellow of the American Academy of Neurology.

Still, Franklin called the report both shocking for detailing how some people were dealing with memory issues years later and, at the same time, not all that surprising. Researchers are uncovering new ways opioid use can harm someone, and this finding might just be the latest addition.

Franklin also said the report suggested that it was worth assessing people who recover or are revived from an overdose for damage to their brains.

“This would prompt me to want to study that,” he said.

By publishing the case reports, officials said they hoped that more clinicians will be on the lookout for cases.

“That’s why we want to bring this to people’s attention,” DeMaria said. “Maybe this isn’t an outbreak of a new syndrome, but we won’t know that until people start looking at this more widely and start looking for this earlier in the presentation.”

  • It is very sad that this happens to people but it is sadder to think that it is self-imposed. The human tendency to seek a different life speaks to our intuition that there is a higher power. Only a spiritual encounter with Jesus Christ can fill that void.

    • Well done! And that takes real strength on your part. Others can guide and advise but it is your personal strength and pride in yourself that enabled you to change your life for the better. Though I do not know you I am proud that you have chosen life, with all its beauty and challenges, over addiction to a substance that would otherwise have ruled you. Awesome!

  • How is this unheard of, or new to the medical community??
    I’ve had the misfortune of having friends and even family members fall into addiction, and there are damn few drugs that when abused do NOT cause short and long term memory loss.

  • If you think you or someone you know is experiencing this, then the first question that should be asked is this; Is the victim taking any other pharmaceuticals? If the answer to that question i yes then you know what the problem is.

  • Of course there will be “amnesia” type symptoms if there is heavy use of opioids or alkaloids (cocaine). Studies done in the 80’s and 90’s showed severe diminished memory in crack users. Findings showed that use of these substances shrinks the lobes in the brain. I’ve viewed the CT scans and the brain mass actually shorinks and recedes from inside the cranium. Tissue damage destroys the information stored in those areas. Oh my goodness….it is so damaging. Don’t do street drugs. Life is so much more than a fleeting high. Temporary fun = permanent damage.

  • I have someone in my life that has been going through it. I thought he was self medicating himself due to behavior disorder (bipolar) I have been documenting it for the past 5 years. We have been to several hospitals including Boston area. He has C.H.S but won’t admit it, he was given pain meds and valium along with 3 different nausea meds for the last 5 years. I can’t pin point the culprit to his amnesia, but it leads back to his weed in my eyes. I thought I was the only one going through this with a loved one.

    • It is the “weed”. There are numerous scholarly publications referencing the permanent damage to the human brain caused by tetra-hydra-canabinoids. THC is not water soluble. It’s fat soluble. And guess what the brain has a lot of in it? Yes, fat. So the THC stays there and accumulates and it does damage the tissue in the brain. The area that is damaged is evident in the physical manefistations a user presents with such as memory loss, speech slurring, physical shaking, not to mention the breakdown of hemoglobin. In addition to this problem if your family member has a lot of heavy metals in his system from anti-perspirant use over the years, to build up from water with heavy metals, and other environmental influences like we’re all exposed to; then he’s likely to have more damage in addition to the accumulation of THC. An MD who is also an alternative medicine doctor (like Andrew Weil look him up online) will perform a deeper investigation into what has accumulated in his body specifically the blood stream. The human brain has excellent abilities to heal with good body health such as in the case of Jody Miller who is thriving after a brain hemispherectomy. She has half a brain. I hope this family member you know gets some sound medical advise that will benefit his life; because his life is precious.

  • Modern medicine has become a religion. We are suppose to take every word as it were the word of some all knowing god. We are to question nothing such as vaccines lest we commit heresy. Let me guess, they are going to come out with some expensive new cure all to solve a problem created by them. I do not trust them and their master Big Pharma.

    • Some of what you say it true. If driven by profits. However, as in the case of vaccines it’s not the vaccines that are the problem. It’s the physiology of the individual that is susceptible to multiple vaccines being given to the body at one time and the body cannot cope with the onslaught. Children who developed brain disorders from multiple vaccines at one time (such as those entering schools to catch up on vaccines prior to admittance) and suffer from ADHD, ADD, Austism Spectrum, etc. may not have had normal amounts of glutathione in their body. Glutathione is a tripeptide that breaks down and flushes out heavy metals in the body some of which were introduced as preservatives in vaccines. Vaccines are beneficial and necessary because since humans took the technological leap to be able to migrate quickly (i.e. planes, trains and automobiles) we have become more quickly exposed to pathogens that would otherwise have remained isolated in regions among distinct groups of people. In other words communicability increased faster than resistance. But, big pharma does influence negatively when they push cures for symptoms instead of addressing the underlying causes of the problem.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more! It was truly unbelievable to view the other comments and see how everybody else just blindly buys into the media’s story. When are people going to wake up and realize that the bureau’s and Lobbyists don’t want you well

    • Anna,
      While that may be a factor in some cases, it’s not always the case.
      At least 10 yrs ago I had gotten a flu shot. I had never had the flu and a cold only a few times in my life. After a month I got a pretty bad case of the flu.
      A month later I got the flu again, this time even worse!

      A few yrs ago whooping cough was going around in my area and my Dr. thought it was a good idea for me to get the vaccine. I did.
      For 2 days + I had 104+ fever and encephalitis (didn’t know it at the time), along with other terrible symptoms.
      I had horrible migraines for the first 30 yrs of my life and the pain in my head with this was worse than any migraine I ever had.

      And that’s not counting the mercury in all the vaccines either. It’s not possible to convince anyone that that can be healthy.
      Especially cumulatively. (children to later adulthood)
      I will never ever get another vaccine.

      And then when you see things like this, it just makes people lose all faith and respect for the medical field and those that are supposed to be the watch dogs over it:

    • Tell her to stop taking her head meds such as anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. Sometimes she probably looks up only to wonder how she got to the location where she is standing having no memory of the travel between point A and point B. It is a common side effect of the head meds that doctors never talk about. All they say is that there is no evidence to support such claims.

  • Perhaps some good could come of this. Maybe some will forget that they take drugs, and never take them again. Hope people are implanting false memories in them. No, you like school, you go every day. You’re a hard worker. You get up every day and go to your job. You don’t believe in welfare. You would refuse to accept it. You hate career politicians, and refuse to vote for them…

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