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.