How Do Drugs Affect Your Brain?
Your brain is the most complex organ in the body. Not only does the brain regulate the functions necessary for your survival, it's also the reason you can drive a car, play music with your friends, kick a soccer ball at the park and most importantly, enjoy these everyday activities.
Drugs can alter the brain’s chemical levels, and it’s ability to perform essential life-sustaining functions. Additionally, long-term misuse of drugs can make the brain deeply dependent on a substance to function and in turn, perpetuate a user’s addiction.
Your Brain And Drugs
Misuse or long-term abuse of drugs can profoundly impact the way your brain functions. Drugs can do this because once ingested, they alter the brain’s chemistry in order to slow down or speed up the central nervous system.
The central nervous system consists of both your brain and your spinal cord.
It is responsible for regulating your body’s core functions such as:
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Body temperature
- Sensory information
If these essential brain functions are interrupted or altered in any way due to drug use, it can be life-threatening.
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Mind-altering substances also affect the level of chemicals, or neurotransmitters, in the brain.
The neurotransmitters most commonly impacted by drug use are:
- Dopamine: Regulates mood, enhances pleasure, helps increase attention and motivation.
- Serotonin: Stabilizes mood and regulates emotions.
- Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA): Lowers anxiety levels and slows down functions of the central nervous system.
- Norepinephrine: Increases focus, attention and energy levels; speeds up the function of the central nervous system.
Each drug impacts the brain differently, and long-term misuse of one or more substances will increasingly damage this essential organ.
Effects Of Prescription Opioids And Heroin On The Brain
Opioids work as central nervous system depressants to slow down the brain’s activity. When taken, opioids attach themselves to the receptors in the brain and mimic the behaviors of a natural neurotransmitter. While this makes opioids effective at blocking pain and creating a calming effect throughout the body, they can also dangerously slow down breathing and heart rate.
Opioid painkillers and heroin are among the most addictive drugs. Dependence on these drugs can form quickly because of their ability to create what users describe as a euphoric high almost instantaneously. While this may be true, the pleasurable high is only part of the reason that opioids are so addictive.
Prescription opioids and heroin are also addictive because they activate the reward center in the brain. In order to activate the reward center, opioids flood your system with the feel-good chemical dopamine. Your mind is wired to remember and seek out the activities that stimulated your reward center and teaches you to do these things again and again to get the same euphoric rush. Due to this, your brain can form a dependence to opioids quite rapidly.
Effects Of Stimulant Drugs On The Brain
Stimulants include illicit drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine, and prescription amphetamines, such as Adderall and Ritalin.
This collection of drugs affects the brain by acting as central nervous system stimulants. Stimulants increase the activity of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine.
While the increase in dopamine causes a rush of pleasure among uses, the hyperstimulation of norepinephrine can cause:
- Increased heart rate
- Increased breathing
- Decreased blood flow
- Increased blood sugar levels
When taken in high dosages, the irregular chemical balance in the brain caused by stimulants can lead to a dangerously high body temperature, an irregular heartbeat, seizures and heart failure. Over a long period of time, this chemical imbalance could also cause you to develop depression, anxiety, psychosis or extreme paranoia.
Additionally, the hyperstimulation throughout the brain and body makes you feel stronger, more self-assured and energized. The extra confidence and energy allow those who abuse stimulants to accomplish more than they usually would without the drug. The feeling of accomplishment leads many back to the use of stimulants time and time again.
Effects Of Benzodiazepines On The Brain
Benzodiazepines are prescription sedatives primary used to treat anxiety. Commonly called benzos, this group includes drugs like Xanax, Valium, Ativan, Librium, and Klonopin.
Similar to opioids, benzos act as a central nervous system depressant in order to create a calming effect and reduce anxiety. In order to do this, benzos inhibit the brain’s ability to interpret or produce chemicals that induce stress. The sedative effect of Xanax, and drugs like it, is what makes benzos so good at quickly treating people who suffer from anxiety and panic disorder.
Unfortunately, the same qualities that make benzo so good at treating anxiety also make these drugs highly addictive. Like many other drugs, the more you use benzos, the more your brain will begin to rely on them to function normally. As tolerance for the benzo increases so will abuse of these mind-altering drugs.
Effects Of Hallucinogens On The Brain
Popularized in the 1960s, use of hallucinogenic drugs has made a comeback in recent years among college students and music festival goers.
While very little research has been done on this class of drugs, it is thought that hallucinogens, such as LSD and DMT, affect the brain’s serotonin levels. When ingested, these drugs create an over-stimulation of serotonin and flood the mind with signals that mimic psychosis and break down your inhibitions.
Hallucinogens also stimulate the part of your brain that is responsible for your mood and your perceptions. This can lead to sensory crossover, which is why those who use hallucinogens sometimes report hearing colors or seeing sounds.
This class of drugs is also thought to interrupt or block the brain’s reception of glutamate, a chemical responsible for your pain perception, learning, and memory. Due to this, you may feel like you have dissociated from your body when using some hallucinogens or feel very detached from your surroundings.
Before taking any drugs, it’s essential to know that affects that these potentially mind-altering substances can have on your brain.