Suboxone doesn’t normally cause memory loss or any other kind of cognitive decline in people taking it as prescribed as part of treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD). With that said, one study did find it may cause cognitive decline in about 5% of users.
In almost all cases, Suboxone is the much safer choice since using it (or a similar drug) allows a person to avoid misusing more potent opioids. It is widely considered a safe and effective medication to treat OUD.
Suboxone’s Impact on the Brain
Suboxone is generally considered very safe by addiction treatment experts. When used as prescribed, it has very low potential for misuse. Many people who take Suboxone continue to for years or even the rest of their lives.
While not without side effects and risks, Suboxone is relatively well studied and has been shown to help substantially with drug cravings and withdrawal. Its use results in better recovery outcomes compared to a treatment plan without medications for OUD.
The buprenorphine in Suboxone is itself an opioid, although not as potent as those typically associated with opioid use disorder. This means some people worry that it may impact their brain in unwanted ways.
First, it’s important to put Suboxone and drugs like it in context. These drugs won’t typically be used by a person who has been completely drug abstinent for an extended period. Suboxone is a medication used in addiction treatment, so the “baseline” to compare it against is a person who has been regularly misusing opioids like heroin or fentanyl.
A small study examined individuals with OUD who were taking buprenorphine and assessed their cognitive function. Results showed that 15% of participants showed at least some overall cognitive improvement and 80% remained stable in terms of their cognitive function. Another 5% showed some level of cognitive decline, although it should be noted that doesn’t necessarily mean substantial decline.
Suboxone’s Impact on Memory & Learning
Overall, the study discussed in the section above helps to address the initial question of this article. Both learning and memory will generally either improve or remain stable in a person taking Suboxone as part of their addiction treatment.
This makes logical sense. Consider that a person on buprenorphine-based medication who is taking the drug for addiction treatment is less likely to be misusing opioids and less likely to be distracted by withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings during their recovery.
This conclusion is largely backed by other studies as well. While people taking drugs like Suboxone tend to perform worse in cognitive tests than a healthy control group, people dealing with active opioid dependence perform even worse. In essence, if Suboxone can help a person avoid misusing opioids, they’re likely to see benefits or at least achieve stability in their cognitive function.
With that said, a small minority of people taking the drug as prescribed do report some level of cognitive decline. Not everyone reacts the same to Suboxone, and buprenorphine is still an opioid, although it is a partial agonist compared to the full agonist drugs, like heroin, that are typically associated with OUD.
These individuals will want to discuss what they’re experiencing with their doctors. They may be able to adjust their treatment plan to lessen or eliminate these symptoms. In some cases, Suboxone or a similar drug may still be the best option for them, with some level of cognitive decline being offset by the benefits the drug brings in terms of allowing one to avoid opioid misuse, which is a far greater health concern that can have fatal consequences.
What Other Side Effects Are From Long-Term Suboxone Use?
In the long term, Suboxone can tax the liver, although this is not normally a major health concern for people who are otherwise healthy. Some potential symptoms of concern that may signal a serious issue with your liver include unusual bleeding or bruising, an unexplained lack of energy, pain in the upper right part of the stomach, yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice), dark-colored urine, and light-colored stools.
Suboxone can cause some sexual side effects, including disrupting menstrual cycles, lowering libido, and potentially causing erectile dysfunction. While not normally a major concern, these problems are worth talking to a doctor about if they occur, especially if they significantly impact your quality of life.
Suboxone can sometimes cause dizziness, lightheadedness, and fainting. Although this isn’t usually severe, to a doctor if it is a common occurrence or you actually lose consciousness. You should also be very careful driving or operating heavy machinery when on Suboxone until you fully understand how the drug makes you feel. However, most people on Suboxone can still safely do these activities. Most commonly, dizziness, lightheadedness, and fainting issues are most significant when one is getting up from a lying position.
Because it contains an opioid, Suboxone is likely to cause physical dependence with long-term use, meaning a person will experience withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop taking it. However, it’s often prescribed to help a person avoid withdrawal symptoms from other, more dangerous opioids anyway. In these cases, an individual already had an opioid use disorder and has just transitioned to a significantly less dangerous opioid.
Overall, Suboxone’s benefits greatly outweigh any potential negatives when it comes to treatment of opioid use disorder.
- Can Buprenorphine Treatment for Opioid Addiction Aid Cognitive Recovery? Recovery Research Institute. https://www.recoveryanswers.org/research-post/can-buprenorphine-treatment-opioid-addiction-aid-cognitive-recovery/. Accessed February 2023.
- Neurocognitive Functions in Patients on Buprenorphine Maintenance for Opioid Dependence: A Comparative Study With Three Matched Control Groups. Asian Journal of Psychiatry. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1876201820302938. October 2020. Accessed February 2023.
- Buprenorphine Sublingual and Buccal (Opioid Dependence). U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a605002.html. January 2022. Accessed February 2023.
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD
Peter Manza, PhD received his BA in Psychology and Biology from the University of Rochester and his PhD in Integrative Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. He is currently working as a research scientist in Washington, DC. His research focuses on the role ... Read More