How Does Long-Term Benzodiazepine Abuse Affect the Brain?

Estimates say that over 30 million adults in America have or have had a prescription for benzodiazepines. About 17% of them have misused the drug. A one-time overdose from benzodiazepine abuse can be life-threatening, but long-term abuse poses significant risks to the brain.

To guide you or a loved one into treatment for benzodiazepine abuse, arm yourself with knowledge about the short-term effects of benzos and the threats prolonged use pose to the brain and one’s mental health.

Short-term Effects

To understand the effects of long-term brain damage from benzo abuse, it’s important to understand the short-term effects. A person who has just ingested benzodiazepines above therapeutic doses might experience:

  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Loss of motor control

Benzodiazepines sedate the central nervous system and are generally prescribed for short-term relief, not to treat chronic psychological or physical conditions. They soothe overactive nervous systems plagued by anxiety, insomnia and panic attacks.

Long-term use makes these side-effects normal for the brain, leaving people suffering from addiction without the neurological tools needed to navigate everyday life. In fact, many of the symptoms benzos treat become worse after substantial abuse.


Though benzodiazepines are often prescribed to help panic and anxiety disorders, their long-term abuse may actually makes those problems worse. This happens in the nervous system’s messenger structure: neurons and GABA.

GABA is an amino acid that attaches to a neuron to make it less active, meaning it calms anxious feelings and racing thoughts. People with anxiety disorders may have low GABA activity. Benzos help GABA work more efficiently.

After long-term benzodiazepine abuse, the brain stops producing GABA. This means the body’s natural defense against stress becomes non-existent. As tolerance levels increase, the amount of benzos needed for a person to feel normal does too, leading to more persistent and severe bouts of anxiety.

Decreased Emotional Regulation

Benzos also affect the brain’s reward system. When people do activities that feel good, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes them feel euphoric or happy. It’s released after activities like:

  • Eating
  • Exercising
  • Socializing
  • Sex

In short, dopamine helps people create habits by rewarding them with positive feelings.

Unfortunately, abusing drugs or alcohol might stimulate dopamine release making users initially feel happy. However, after long-term drug use, the brain produces less and less dopamine, meaning people may feel negative mood swings and sustained depressive episodes. Activities that once caused dopamine release no longer do.

The good news is that research highlighted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation shows the brain may return to normal after therapy, the proper medication and abstinence from benzodiazepine abuse. These important insights into how the brain repairs itself equips addiction counsellors and doctors to administer effective addiction recovery.

Reduced Capacity for Planning and Critical Thinking

Like alcohol, benzos depress the central nervous system — a structure made up of the spinal cord and brain that coordinates thoughts with actions. Specifically, benzos act on the area of the brain responsible for planning and problem-solving known as the prefrontal cortex.

After long-term benzo abuse, that part of the brain, like an unused muscle, doesn’t function at full capacity. This can lead to impulsive and antisocial behaviors such as:

  • Impaired driving
  • Violent outbursts
  • Shoplifting
  • Self-harm
  • Additional substance abuse

Because long-term benzodiazepine abuse creates a disconnect between parts of the brain that regulate what people want with what’s actually best for them, otherwise calm, thoughtful people act without thinking of consequences.

Difficulty Processing New Information

The human brain processes visual information constantly. It scans sidewalks for obstacles, judges how far away objects are and uses traits like color, shape and movement to identify things. In social settings, it picks up on body language and helps people remember new friends or coworkers. Long-term benzo abuse may inhibit that.

This happens because benzos stop short-term memories from entering the long-term memory bank. When a person’s system is used to be being flooded by benzodiazepines, studies show that they are more likely to suffer from anterograde amnesia, or the inability to create new memories. This might result in:

  • Forgetting new names
  • Tripping over obstacles
  • Forgetting conversations
  • The loss of the ability to judge time

People addicted to benzodiazepines won’t forget skills they already have, but they might not be able to remember what they ate for breakfast or who they talked to.

Damage to Developing Adolescent Brains

Adolescents, teenagers and young adults are in a constant state of brain development. Synapses and neurons, such as those affected by benzo use, prune themselves. In other words, a developing brain prioritizes important connections and diverts energy from less used pathways.

Long-term benzo abuse alters the pruning process. While a young, malleable brain easily learns new skills, it can also learn repeated behavior like drug abuse according to a data analysis conducted by the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

This means long-term benzo abuse in teens and young adults results in their brains creating pathways tailored to the effects of the drug. This leaves less energy for developing:

  • Cognitive skills such as language
  • Behavioral management
  • Decision-making skills
  • Motor skills

Every risk an adult struggling with benzo addiction encounters is more pronounced and dangerous to adolescents. While an adult that has already learned these skills and created brain pathways won’t necessarily lose them, a young adult with a history of benzo addiction may not have the chance to fully create them.

Find Benzodiazepine Abuse Treatment In California

Treating a complex issue like benzodiazepine abuse requires medically-sound techniques in a protected setting. At Inland Detox, the path to a benzodiazepine-free life starts with in-patient detox at our 2.5-acre campus in southern California. After withdrawal and stabilization, we’re ready to help you with the most intimidating part: living a chemical-dependency-free life.

Through a stellar 1:3 client-to-staff ratio, all specializing in different aspects of recovery, we give every client an exit plan full of the tools they need to conquer benzodiazepine abuse. To find out more and start the path to recovery, contact our admissions office anytime or leave us an online message.