Substance Abuse/Toxins

Toxic “substances” and your Brain

In the last century, thousands of toxic substances have been released into our global environment.  Heavy metals, petroleum products, radioactive substances, smoking products, pharmaceuticals, wartime materials, alcohols, and recreational substances all directly or indirectly impact the brain.  Just as we have ignored the long-term impact of traumatic brain injury until recently, we continue to ignore the effects of toxic substanceson our brain function.

Why do we ignore their impact on our brain function?

Partly, this is due to the slow, insidious effects of these substances.  Partly, we lull ourselves into lack of concern about these effects because their occurrence is easily reversible, as with a glass of alcoholic beverage.

Partly, this is also related to our ignoring the very real vulnerability of the “computer” that runs our lives – our brain! 

Many high school students have been shown the picture poster labeled, “this is your brain, and this is your brain on drugs (picture of a fried egg).” Nevertheless, substance abuse is rampant in our schools. Studies have shown 21% of 8th graders and 49% of 12th graders have used illicit drugs and over 40% of 8th graders and 73% of 12 graders have consumed alcohol.

Truly it has been said: if your brain does not work, you don’t “work.”

Yet, over 15.4 million people in the USA are dependent on alcohol and an estimated 40% of the US population uses marijuana.

Medical studies have shown toxins cause both reversible and nonreversible changes to brain function, and long term, to brain anatomy.  Lead, carbon monoxide, marijuana, cocaine, “mind-altering” substances, alcohol, many pharmaceuticals alter brain function in ways that we don’t completely understand.

Even pharmaceutical medications that alter brain function for seemingly good causes and are prescribed on a daily basis can have lasting impacts on the brain.

Similar to the point we made in oursection on TBI (traumatic brain injury), society has been oblivious to the negative effects of toxins and abusable substances on our brain, and thus “honestly” deny these effects unless carefully questioned about them. 

Partly, this is due to the reality that until recently we have had no brain function imaging tools that can look at the biochemistry of our brain.  Now, the most common, routine brain tracer used today for SPECT brain imaging was designed in relation to this biochemistry.

The good news is that the impact of these toxic substances and medications, just as with mild TBI, is being brought to “light” by brain SPECT imaging. 

For example, adults labeled as “personality disordered” often on SPECT can show temporal lobe dysfunction, frontal lobe trauma or dysfunction, brain toxicity. Children who present with rage outbursts commonly show temporal lobe abnormalities, OCD, bipolar disorder, brain trauma or toxicity. Toxins affect the very nature of our personality – turning off motivation, dimming our cognition, and setting off inappropriate impulsivity. The impact of toxic lead levels in the drinking water of Flint, Michigan upon intelligence and learning of the city’s children will not soon dim from collective memory of the USA.

Because brain SPECT imaging shows the functional status of different brain regions, it brings to “light” the seemingly insidious impact of these toxic substances. Seeing the effects of a toxin on your brain may change your life.

Figure 1A and 1B – Weekend Use of Marijuana over 6 months
Figure 2A and 2B – Daily Marijuana Use over Several Years
Figure 3A and 3B – Alcohol and Multiple Substance Abuse over Several Years

Figure 4 – Cadmium Exposure Over Several Years
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