The Opioid Alzheimer’s Connection

Posted in Summer 2022, Crosswalk, News Briefs

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

Researchers at the Dornsife School of Public Health explored a large body of data on opioid overdose survivors, finding that repeated overdosing can lead to neurodegeneration, which can produce risky behaviors that may make future overdoses more likely.

Led by Janna Ataiants, a senior research scientist, and Stephen Lankenau, professor and associate dean for research, the team plowed new ground in understanding the long-term consequences of repeated nonfatal opioid overdose.

“We found strong evidence in the literature that opioid overdoses lead to these Alzheimer’s-like pathologies in the brain,” Lankenau says. “We also know that these processes in the body may progress for decades before these symptoms are evident, because of lower rates of health care access for many of those who use opioids.”

The Drexel study — published in the International Journal of Drug Policy — notes that fatal overdoses that have skyrocketed “might be only the visible tip of a looming iceberg.”

The team notes that fatal overdoses constitute only 3–4 percent of all overdoses.