Everyone loses brain cells – it’s just a part of life. The great thing is that losing some brain cells every once and awhile isn’t going to cause any significant problems. Additionally, most people don’t understand that their brain also has the power to repair itself and grow new brain cells via a process called neurogenesis. Even if you are a heavy drug user or abuser, there is still hope for you to repair your brain and get back on track. However, it is still interesting to learn about some substances, injuries, diseases, illnesses, and other crazy actions that can kill brain cells.
If you read this article and have done some of the things on the list, there’s no need to freak out. Don’t think that your brain is fried or all of a sudden not going to be able to function properly ever again if you have been chronically stressed for the past year. I am a firm believer in the fact that in many cases, people can recover and get their brains back on track even after losing brain cells or incurring damage.
List of things that kill brain cells
Included below is an extensive list of things that will kill your brain cells. The list is grouped by categories including: head trauma, health conditions, drugs, environmental, chemicals, miscellaneous, and psychological causes of brain cell (neuron) death. Keep in mind that most people have lost brain cells throughout their lifetime.
Losing brain cells should not be a reason to panic or stress yourself out. This list was compiled simply out of curiosity and should not be obsessed over. Also understand that there are ways to grow new brain cells if you would like to repair your brain. For additional reading, check out: “Myths of Things that Kill Brain Cells” – this addresses the falsehood and propaganda surrounding various common substances.
Bullets (Gun shot) – If you get shot in the head, there’s potential for a lot of brain damage. Not only are you going to lose cells, but you may end up dying. This is perhaps the most common sense item on the list, but I figured I’d throw it on here just to make the list more comprehensive. Bullets are a serious danger to your brain, so if you use a gun be safe; common sense.
Concussion – In most cases, concussions and smashing your head cannot be prevented. However, you can always make sure you are wearing proper equipment for various sports and/or a helmet when riding your bike or motorcycle just to be on the safe side. A concussion is a result of a violent blow to the head that can cause unconsciousness. This blow is capable of killing brain cells in the area that was affected by the strong blow.
Contusion (Cerebral) – A contusion is different from a concussion in that it is a bruise on actual brain tissue. In similar manner to a concussion, a contusion can also lead to the death of brain cells. Always wear head protection when possible to avoid getting smashed in the head. It is not uncommon for boxers to suffer contusions from repeated punches to the head. If you get punched in the head, you will not necessarily develop a contusion. This is caused by repetitive severe blows to cause bruising of the brain.
Head banging – Many people love to bang their heads (i.e. shaking their heads fast and hard) to heavy metal or rock music. Several popular musicians have had to deal with brain cell loss and damages as a result. Notable musicians that got brain damage from head banging include: Terry Balsamo (Evanescence guitarist who had a stroke from head banging) and Tom Araya (Slayer bassist/vocalist who ended up with spinal problems). If you bang your head violently to rock or metal music or any kind of music for that matter, it may contribute to brain cell death and damage.
Whiplash – If you get into a car accident and suffer extreme whiplash, it may jolt your brain to the point where cells are killed. This is similar to the concept of head banging, except in a severe accident, your entire head is whipped quicker and harder than continuous head banging. If your head comes in contact with a hard surface during the whipping motion, this may result in significant brain damage and cell loss.
Alzheimer’s disease – It is no mystery that if you are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, it is devastating. Your memory goes and it is obvious that your brain cells get killed. It is believed that small proteins actually damage and kill neurons by poking holes through them as the disease runs its course.
Dehydration (Severe) – Due to the fact that the brain is 75% water, it is important to make sure that it stays hydrated. Although failing to drink 8 glasses of water a day isn’t going to do any sort of damage, if you go without any fluids for a 24 hour period, you will likely end up killing some brain cells. It may take even less time, but 24 hours is a long period to go without water. Make sure you keep yourself hydrated to avoid an unnecessary loss of brain cells.
Cerebral hypoxia – Hypoxia occurs when your brain cells aren’t getting enough oxygen. Neurons are extremely sensitive to oxygen levels and if oxygen levels are depleted, your cells start to die off. In layman’s terms, hypoxia means suffocation – so if you can’t inhale oxygen for a significant period of time, your brain cells begin to die and you would eventually become vegetative before brain death would occur.
Lyme disease – If Lyme disease isn’t detected and treated as soon as possible, the victim could end up suffering memory problems as well as have to deal with brain cell death. Other things that the victim may experience include: personality changes, anxiety, depression, and inability to concentrate. It is not going to result in instant brain cell death, but if left untreated may do some damage.
Narcolepsy – Individuals that have narcolepsy lose brain cells that produce hypocretin. Narcoleptics have a lower amount of these specific brain cells than individuals without the condition. It is unknown how many fewer cells people have with narcolepsy, but it is thought to be influenced by genetic expression.
Sleep Apnea – Obstructive sleep apnea can cause brain damage and kill brain cells due to lack of oxygen. If your breathing becomes obstructed, your brain will not get enough oxygen to keep cells alive and healthy. More specifically, sleep apnea can harm cells associated with memory and even lead to loss of actual brain tissue.
Strokes – If you suffer a stroke, it can cause major brain damage and involves extensive recovery to help get yourself back on track. In the aftermath of a stroke, many neurons continue to die even after normal blood flow has been reinstated to all areas of the brain. Researchers have found that the NMDA receptors activate the SREBP-1 protein, which leads to cell death. Although this cannot be prevented, scientists have developed drugs to help prevent this cell death from happening.
Amphetamine abuse – Drugs like Adderall are not likely going to cause any major brain damage or loss of neurons if used properly. However, if you abuse amphetamines, it can have detrimental effects on cognitive functioning even years after use. Amphetamines release large amounts of dopamine to help stimulate brain activity. A point of exitotoxicity may be reached if amphetamines are abused and you could lose brain cells.
Antipsychotics – The class of drugs known as antipsychotics is documented as being linked to brain shrinkage as well as killing brain cells. This is a double whammy for people that already have a disease like psychosis or schizophrenia. Their disease is causing significant distress and functional problems, and the medication that they are taking is actually slowly damaging the brain.
Bath Salts – There is not much scientific information regarding bath salts. However, this popular drug containes substituted cathinones. Most types contain mephedrone or methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV). They cause major changes in brain activity and can certainly cause brain cell death. Elevated stress, paranoia, anger, stimulation, etc. are all side effects from this substance. By using bath salts you are likely going to get brain damage from the excessive stimulation and inability to wind down. Additionally, there may be chemicals in this drug that you are not aware of that may kill more brain cells.
Benzodiazepine abuse – Should you end up abusing a benzodiazepine drug like Xanax or Valium over the long term, you put yourself at risk to lose brain cells as well as develop dementia. Although not everyone taking this drug will experience the negative side effects, it can lead to cognition problems in the long term. There are a lot of conflicting results from benzodiazepine studies, but in most the long term effects do not seem favorable.
Cigarettes / tobacco products – A compound in tobacco products including cigarettes and chewing tobacco called NNK (procarcinogen) causes white blood cells in the body’s central nervous system (CNS) to attack healthy brain cells. Normally immune cells called “microglia” attack unhealthy and damaged cells in the brain to help promote healthy functioning. However the NNK causes the microglia to attack healthy cells.
Cocaine – Although using cocaine once or twice may not do much damage, there is significant evidence that cocaine use kills your brains pleasure cells. So the cells that allow you to get high off of cocaine are the very cells that become damaged and killed from the drug’s use. The cells that die from cocaine use are in your brain’s pleasure center, which help you feel good via the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Things that previously brought you pleasure may no longer bring you any pleasure due to all of the extinct pleasure neurons in the pleasure center.
Ecstasy (MDMA) – One extreme myth regarding the popular rave drug ecstasy is that it will “put holes in your brain” – however, it does have the potential to kill brain cells – specifically ones that are of central importance to the serotonin system. Not only can it deplete natural stores of serotonin, it can damage axons and other nerve cells. Some researchers believe that the brain is not able to restore its axons. Read more about how ecstasy may cause brain damage if you are interested.
Inhalants – The poisons in inhalants can cause major problems in regards to brain functioning and can damage many brain cells. If you chronically sniff or huff things like paint and glue, you are risking your brain. Some people experience significant brain damage from years of huffing paint to get a high. Individuals that sniff paint are putting themselves at major risk for brain damage. Don’t huff paint or other inhalants as a way to get high – this is a surefire way to end up with brain problems.
Ketamine – Prolonged exposure to ketamine has been linked to the death of neurons and neuronal toxicity. The death was found to have happened in the frontal cortex of monkeys. Ironically enough ketamine is currently being investigated as an alternative treatment for depression. Short term exposure was not associated with any adverse effects; you really have to abuse ketamine to kill brain cells.
Methamphetamines – If you want to severely damage your overall brain functioning, consider meth. Over time, this is a sure-fire way to roast your brain cells and cause long term damage to many areas of the brain. What’s interesting is that chronic use of meth can cause changes to the brain similar to those found in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and stroke victims. Scientists have found that the more you use meth, the more damage your brain cells will incur.
Nitrous Oxide – When used by a medical professional for anesthetic purposes, nitrous oxide is relatively safe – it will not damage the brain. However, when it is used recreationally in a repetitive manner to maintain a high, it can deplete oxygen levels may inhibit the uptake of vitamin B12. If you take “laughing gas” or “whippets” on the regular, you are putting your brain at risk for cell death – especially over the long term.
PCP – This drug was found to cause lesions on the brain in rats. This does not necessarily mean that it applies to humans. However abuse of Phencyclidine could still lead to brain cell death in humans as well. There is no way of knowing unless studies are actually conducted. Abuse of this dissociative over time has been linked to causing brain damage.
Steroids – Taking steroids can lead to elevated levels of testosterone which in turn can kill brain cells. It was determined that at high concentrations, cell viability decreases. It is believed that the excess testosterone is what plays a role in damaging and knocking neurons out of commission. If you are getting your muscle by taking steroids, you may want to think twice before you have to deal with some brain damage.
Air pollution – Whether you are indoors or outdoors, it’s important to make sure you are not a victim of air pollution. In places like Mexico City where air pollution is rampant, many residents wear masks to help block the dirty air from entering their nasal cavities. In larger cities, there are toxins in the air that have the potential to cause brain damage and kill brain cells. If you live in a city where you suspect such air pollution, you should take some sort of action to protect yourself or move to a cleaner environment.
Carbon Monoxide poisoning – Carbon monoxide poisoning basically deprives the brain of oxygen while poisoning them. This results in a fairly quick cell death if immediate action is not taken to fix the problem. A minor exposure may not kill cells, but it could traumatize them or affect their ability to function normally. What’s interesting about carbon monoxide exposure is that people react differently to different amounts. For some people it may only take a little amount to kill brain cells, while for others it may take more.
Lead exposure – If you end up getting lead poisoning via things like lead paint chips, it can lead to major depression, problems with cognition, as well as kill brain cells. Although lead poisoning is less common these days, the most common ways to get it include: food, water, air, paint chips, soil, and various products. For adults the most common way to get lead poisoning is by exposure on a work-related job. Not only will lead cause increased brain aging and neurological problems, it can kill a lot of cells in the process.
Mercury toxicity – It is well documented that mercury toxicity can cause major problems within the nervous system and brain. In some cases things like mercury fillings cause depression and suicidal thinking in people with no prior history of psychiatric illness. If you have ever gotten mercury fillings, you may be a victim of mercury poisoning – which can cause brain damage and kill your brain cells. You can get mercury poisoning from a number of sources including fish like salmon – so make an attempt to avoid exposure. Mercury will cause your neurons to degenerate and die quickly.
Pesticides – Many individuals don’t realize how exposure to pesticides can cause major cognitive decline. We already know that pesticide exposure has a major impact on memory, so it should be no surprise that exposure to a significant amount of pesticides will cause brain damage and kill brain cells. How does a person get exposed to pesticides? Over half of people with lawns or gardens use some sort of pesticides to help maintain their flowers and crops. So residentially exposure via air, water, and food isn’t uncommon. Most people absorb pesticides through the skin while working certain jobs and aren’t even aware of it. Just keep in mind that if you work with them, you are putting your brain and body at risk.
Welding fumes – The fumes that are emitted from welding contain high amounts of manganese. It is the manganese that has been linked to damaging the brain in the same area that is found in Parkinson’s victims. Studies have shown that there was a significant reduction in dopamine as well as dopaminergic neurons. If you work as a welder or are located in an area where you are exposed to welding fumes on a consistent basis, just keep in mind that the fumes are detrimental to your brain.
Fluoride – Fluoride is a monovalent ion found in things like toothpaste and drinking water. Although it is another highly controversial substance like aspartame, the general consensus seems to be that it is bad for your brain. Although there haven’t been any major studies done to determine whether neurons die as a result of fluoride exposure, there have been studies linked to lower IQ scores among developing adolescents.
Formaldehyde – Formaldehyde is a well known human carcinogen, but is produced at a rate of millions of tons per year for commercial and business purposes (e.g. building materials and household products). It is not only highly toxic, but exposure to formaldehyde can lead to major detrimental effects within the central nervous system. If you want to maintain a healthy brain, stay away from this chemical.
MTPT chemical – Upon injection of the chemical MTPT, it causes Parkinsonism and causes death of various dopaminergic neurons – particularly in the substantia nigra region of the brain. This is basically a poison to your brain and will cause a whole heap of problems for mental functioning. Fortunately poisoning your brain with this substance is tough because this chemical is well regulated and typically only used for research purposes.
Solvents – Nearly all solvents are poisonous if swallowed, most people understand this fact. But many people fail to realize that exposure to solvents via inhalation can cause brain damage and kill brain cells as well. The more you are exposed to solvents and the greater the potency, the greater the amount of damage that may be incurred. Usually damage happens over the long term and is a result of very highly concentrated solvents. Things like paint strippers can end up causing significant brain damage as well as damage to the body.
Anesthesia – Many types of anesthetic drugs can cause significant brain impairment and even memory problems after use. Although anesthesiologists are highly trained professionals, the anesthesia exposure can wipe out some brain cells. Although there isn’t conclusive evidence in humans that anesthetic drugs kill brain cells, there is significant evidence in rats and mice. Currently there hasn’t been any direct research conducted in humans to find whether anesthesia causes neuronal death.
Aspartame – Aspartame is a common food additive (artificial sweetener) that is highly controversial in terms of impact it may have on your overall health. There is some evidence that excess aspartame can excite your brain cells to a point of overstimulation – leading to exitotoxicity and brain cell death. Aspartame contains amino acids that are capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier which can lead to neuronal destruction and damage.
Cortisol – Cortisol is secreted by the kidneys when you are dealing with a lot of physical and mental stress. When the cortisol gets to the brain it can prevent memories from forming, and in high amounts, can kill neurons. It primarily attacks the hippocampus region of the brain – which can make long term memory retrieval difficult. Note: The hormone cortisol is sometimes referred to as corticosteroids – under the class of glucocorticoids.
Chemotherapy – Not only can chemotherapy cause brain cells to die off rapidly, but certain drugs given post-treatment continue to damage and kill neurons. Most chemotherapeutic agents target rapidly dividing cells – an extremely common trait of cancerous cells. Because these agents kill rapidly dividing cells, they also kill non-cancerous cells that divide rapidly as a part of their normal everyday functioning.
Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) – There are many psychiatrists that promote the heck out of ECT as being a good option for treatment-resistant depression. If you’ve tried all the medications, and tried different therapies, why not give ECT a shot? The fact is that ECT works by shocking your brain cells to trigger a seizure. The goal is to help normalize activity within a person’s brain and alleviate their depression. However, in many cases ECT ends up damaging the brain and killing neurons. Some people find it effective, but most end up with memory and other cognition problems. In some cases people are worse than ever before.
Free Radicals – Free radicals are highly-reactive forms of oxygen that can kill brain cells and cause brain damage. If the free radicals in your brain run rampant, your neurons will be damaged at a quicker rate than they can be repaired. This leads to brain cell death as well as cognitive decline if not corrected.
Helium – Helium is a gas that is non-toxic – so it won’t do any direct damage to your brain or cells. However, what helium does is basically suffocates the person breathing it in via the displacement of oxygen. If you are inhaling helium instead of oxygen, your brain cells aren’t getting the oxygen that they need to survive – which can not only kill cells, but lead to brain death. So indirectly helium can be classified as something that kills brain cells.
Radiation – Radiation is extremely effective at helping destroy cancerous and tumor cells. However, this exposure can have an impact on other areas of the brain and cells. Although radiation is typically only given once per day to avoid damaging other parts of the brain, it still can have an impact on other brain cells. Most people notice changes in cognition, mood swings, and memory issues during radiation. It’s quite obvious that this treatment can kill some healthy brain cells, but doctors do their best job to target the exposure strictly to the area with the tumor.
Sucralose – Similar to aspartame, sucralose is a substance that is found in things like Splenda which acts as an excitotoxin. Basically what it does is excites your neurons to such an extreme that they die. Although there haven’t been direct studies involving sucralose and neurons, most agree that it is linked to excitotoxicity in the brain.
Water intoxication – If you drink water in excess, you can actually become intoxicated and lose brain cells. When a person drinks too much water, it can actually result in brain cells swelling and increasing pressure within the cranium. In cases of extreme water intoxication, brain cells can die and brain damage may occur. Never flood your brain with too much water – drink it in moderation.
Schizophrenia / Psychosis – A major problem associated with a disease like schizophrenia is that it causes significant brain changes and an individual to lose brain volume. Their brain volume literally diminishes as the disease becomes more severe. It is a sad reality that brain cell death is inevitable – diseases like schizophrenia and psychosis can really take a toll over time.
Stress (Chronic / Severe) – Most people that are stressed out don’t realize that once the fight-or-flight response gets activated it can release things like cortisol and epinephrine into the body. Although these boost alertness, in major concentrations, the elevated levels of cortisol over an extended period of time can damage brain functioning and kill brain cells. Theoretically things like anxiety disorders, hypochondria, panic attacks, PTSD, etc. over an extended period of time are going to release enough cortisol to do some damage.
Sleep deprivation – If you don’t get enough sleep, you are certainly not doing your brain any favors. Getting too little sleep will not only kill your brain cells, but it can lead to the development of other health conditions including diabetes. Make sure you commit to getting enough sleep each night to help reduce stress and keep your brain functioning well.
What happens if you’ve lost a lot of brain cells? Or done a lot of things on this list?
If you lose a lot of brain cells, it may have a slightly detrimental influence towards your overall cognition – ability to think, problem solve, and perform advanced tasks. However, most people won’t really notice any difference in their overall cognition from losing neurons. Losing a few cells every once and awhile is likely not a huge deal. There are people that have done many things on this list that are still very smart, high functioning people.
Good news: Your brain can repair itself from damage
The good thing is that there is increasing evidence that even though your brain may lose cells from harmful toxins, it also has the potential to heal itself. Your brain has the ability to grow new cells through a process called neurogenesis. I have already written an in depth article on how to grow new brain cells and stimulate neurogenesis. Contrary to most of the items on this list, healthy activities are associated with the birth of new neurons. If you read closely, most of the drugs, chemicals, and activities on this list are what most people would consider unhealthy.
Brain damage doesn’t always mean loss of brain cells
It should be noted that there are some things that cause brain damage, but don’t necessarily kill brain cells. One such substance for example is that of alcohol. Studies have been done comparing neurons of alcoholics with non alcoholics and no significant differences were found. However, in the alcoholics there can still be brain damage despite no neuronal loss.
Bottom line: Brain cell loss isn’t really that big of a deal
Even if you do a lot of things on this list, you are likely not going to suffer any major change in intelligence throughout your life. If you abuse a lot of drugs and alcohol, it may do some damage, but eventually (assuming you stop), your brain has the ability to repair itself and function well. While by no means is it a good idea to go out and do things on this list, if you have already done some of them, there’s not really a need to panic – your brain will eventually fix itself and return to homeostasis if given enough time.
Additional information: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/brain_basics/ninds_neuron.htm