Among heroin addicts there is an unofficial term used to describe heroin-related memory loss. That term is “CRS” which is an acronym for “Can’t Remember S__t.” Truth be told, the science backs up the term, because we know now that heroin use clouds mentation and impairs brain function, and both neurological effects negatively impact memory.
What is memory?
Memory is a cognitive function that perceives, stores and retrieves information. The brain stores information either as short-term or long-term memory. What’s so fascinating is that memory always begins as short-term memory. Yet if short-term memory is deemed important, the brain refiles it as long-term memory, otherwise the information gets discarded.
Short-term memory can only store about 7 items of information (plus or minus 2) for about 20-30 seconds. Then it discards the information or refiles it as long-term memory. That’s why people can remember 7-digit phone numbers with relative ease, but find it fairly difficult to remember 10-digit numbers.
Long-term memory is divided into two types: declarative (knowing what) and procedural (knowing how).
Declarative memory has to do with retrieving facts (knowledge of the universe) and events (times, places, related emotions and other information).
Procedural memory has to do with retrieving the skills necessary to perform a task, such as walking, or driving a car. Procedural memories are acquired through repetition, and are composed of automatic behaviors so deeply embedded in our mind that we carry them out without thinking.
What happens when we use heroin?
When a person uses heroin, both the amount of information the mind can store and the duration of time it can store that information decrease substantially. It also hinders the brain’s ability to refile short-term memories into new long-term memories, which is an even bigger problem. But why does this happen?
Heroin and Memory Loss
The Locus Coeruleus (LC) Factor
Heroin affects several areas in the brain, and one of those areas is the Locus Coeruleus (LC). The LC is the brain’s primary producer of norepinephrine (NE), which the body uses to keep us awake and breathing. But NE does quite a bit more than that.
What NE does is wake the brain up, by priming it to respond. It stimulates neurons so they are ready for action and opens more synapses so there are more neurons available for various stimuli to enter. You could say that NE gets the brain ready for life. It acts like an attention primer, but the less norepinephrine we have the less attention we have as well.
The brains behind our memory
We know that heroin suppresses the Locus Coeruleus, which reduces Norepinephrine (NE). We also know that less NE means less attention, and therefore the brain perceives less. Furthermore, less NE also means less synapses are open, and therefore there are less places for information to be stored, i.e. less retention, and lastly, less NE limits the brain’s ability to retrieve information, i.e. less recall.
Can your memory improve?
Studies show that heroin use impairs a person’s ability to perceive, store and retrieve information. Those who are currently under the influence of heroin may have difficulty remembering things, or said another way, they forget a lot. Fortunately, memory loss associated with heroin use may only be temporary. Much of the evidence indicates that heroin addicts who achieve a year of abstinence are able to perceive, store and retrieve information without any noticeable impairment. Which is good news, but of course it’s only good news if you stop. Otherwise you’ll keep on forgetting.