I found this small blurb while doing some research on heroin a few days ago. It came from the popular magazine New Scientist. In her article “Why You Need Heroin Like a Hole in the Head” Alison Motluk explains that neurologists in New York have observed cases of heroin smokers who have “spongy holes” in their brains. The condition is known as “progressive spongiform leukoencephalopath.” The “progressive” aspect of the disease comes from the continuing degradation of the brain, which can result in eventual death, even after all heroin use is discontinued.
The worst case noted was a woman of twenty-one who had been smoking heroin for about six months. She was admitted to an emergency room in a coma. After she regained consciousness, she was unable to sit up or speak. The disease attacks, among other parts of the brain, the cerebellum, which is responsible for motor control.
At first, the doctors thought her condition may have been the result of aluminum foil used to smoke the heroin (similar symptoms are reported with a sort of chemical poisoning that comes from tin), but testing revealed that the tin content in the foil was too low to have caused the symptoms. They also suspect that something the heroin was cut with may be responsible for these cases, but no additional information was given in the article. They also didn’t mention if smoking pure heroin could cause the same symptoms.
Motluk, Alison. (1999, November). Why you need heroin like a hole in the head. New Scientist pp. 12.