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This Man Lost His Memory After An Overdose, And Doctors Don't Know Why

"I felt like I had, like, a blank slate."

Posted on April 24, 2017, at 4:44 p.m. ET

This is Max Meehan, a 27-year-old heroin addict from eastern Massachusetts:

View this video on YouTube

One night in 2012, Max went out drinking and also did heroin. The next morning, he woke up unable to form new memories.

Laura Frongillo

His doctors found that he had an ultra-rare form of brain damage.

Max's brain scan courtesy Lahey Hospital and Medical Center

The damage was perfectly localized, on each side of Max's brain, to the hippocampus, the seahorse-shaped area that encodes new memories.

“I’ve been seeing patients for 20 years,” said Yuval Zabar, the neurologist who saw Max at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts. “I can’t recall ever seeing that before.”

After doing some memory tests, Zabar diagnosed Max with amnesia, though he and the rest of the doctors on staff still have no idea what caused it.

After the amnesia hit, Max had to drop out of school and quit his job waiting tables. He moved back in with his mom, who helped take care of him as his memory slowly got better.

Laura Frongillo

“I was terrified to think of going to work and having him being home alone,” his mom, Laura Frongillo, said. She worried he would forget to turn off the oven, or even worse — that he would overdose again.

But it turned out Max was just case #1 in a mysterious cluster of amnesia patients.

BuzzFeed News

By 2016, doctors had found 14 cases of people who had almost exactly the same pattern of brain damaging that Max did, and had also lost the ability to form new memories. Twelve of them had a history of using heroin or other opioids.

Doctors still don't know what could be causing the mysterious amnesia symptoms, though they have some theories.

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Some doctors think it could be tainted drugs. Others suggest that it could be an unknown side effect of fentanyl, a cheap heroin alternative that's 50 times more powerful. (Last year, 75% of people who died of drug overdoses in Massachusetts had fentanyl in their system.) Still others argue that maybe these are just run-of-the-mill overdoses: maybe some small percentage of drug users like Max who overdose deprive their brains of oxygen for just long enough to damage their hippocampi.

But the doctors researching the cluster are sure there's something more going on here.

"People have been abusing these medications for years and years, and overdoses have been happening," said neurologist Jed Barash, who led the study that first found the 14 amnesia cases. "So it's an unusual pattern to see 14 of these cases in a limited window."

But everyone agrees that, as the opioid epidemic continues to spread rapidly across the country, we'll begin to see more cases like Max's emerge. So the Massachusetts Department of Public Health is now alerting doctors to send them more of these cases, in the hopes of figuring out just how many addicts are losing their memories — and why.

Meanwhile, Max is still struggling to get over his heroin addiction. Earlier this year, Max's fiancé Ace died of a heroin overdose.

Laura Frongillo

"I can't believe that that happened to me, and that I still continue to make bad decisions," Max said. "But what keeps bringing me back to trying to be healthier is just knowing that I'm just ruining everyone's life around me."

"At this point, I feel like, the gig is up. Like, I can't keep doing this. I'm going to die or, you know, I'm just going to end up ruining my life and like, living under a bridge," Max said. "It's getting really close to that point."

Watch this video to hear more about Max's story.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.