Doctors are encountering strange cases of amnesia in people who have overdosed on the incredibly potent synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is fueling the addiction crisis nationwide.
Research published in The New England Journal of Medicine March 22 shows four patients that suffered fentanyl overdoses entered emergency rooms in Boston in 2017 with symptoms of amnesia. The patients, all heroin users between the ages of 28 to 37 who could not form new memories, tested positive for fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller roughly 30 to 50 times more powerful than pure heroin, reports BuzzFeed News.
Researchers documented another case in January involving a 30-year-old man in West Virginia who tested positive both fentanyl and cocaine, a substance dealers are increasingly targeting with synthetic opioids. The cases add to 14 other known instances of opioid-induced amnesia in Massachusetts between 2012 and 2016, however, those individuals never underwent testing for synthetic variants like fentanyl. (RELATED: Police Say Cocaine Cut With Fentanyl Is The ‘Next Wave Of The Addiction Crisis’)
“We have to be pretty careful about assigning cause,” said Jed Barash, medical director of Lawrence F. Quigley Memorial Hospital and lead researcher of The New England Journal of Medicine’s report, according to BuzzFeed News. “But it’s becoming increasingly suspicious that fentanyl is the culprit.”
Brain scans revealed significant damage to the hippocampus in the 14 individuals previously diagnosed with acute anterograde amnestic syndrome, which can last for several months or longer. Doctors say its is unclear if fentanyl specifically damages the hippocampus in a more pronounced way than other opioids, or if the damage is a result of massive oxygen loss in the brain during an overdose.
“I still think the primary hypothesis here is overdose,” Gary Franklin, a research professor in neurology at the University of Washington, told BuzzFeed News.
Fentanyl overtook heroin as the U.S.’s deadliest substance in 2016, claiming 19,413 lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton introduced legislation March 22, along with a number of Senate colleagues including South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham that will allow prosecutors to issue stricter prison terms for dealers of fentanyl, which Cotton called a “weapon of mass destruction.”
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The bill significantly reduces the amount of fentanyl a person must have in their possession to trigger mandatory sentencing minimums for narcotics trafficking. This will be crucial for helping local law enforcement fight against the relentless efforts of fentanyl traffickers and distributors, legislators argue, giving them the legal tools to keep dealers off the streets.
Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death for Americans under age 50, killing more than 64,000 people in 2016.
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