In Constant Fear: The Amygdala
The frontal lobe controls other parts of the brain, like the amygdala. The amygdala is the emotional center of the brain. Without proper control from the frontal lobe, the amygdala becomes oversensitive to stress. In this state, someone can have extreme mood swings and become trapped in a state of panic and worry. Many addicts and alcoholics are constantly fearful and rarely feel safe. This is because the amygdala is overexcited.
Now You Know How Drugs Affect The Brain
Every drug affects the brain in some way, often with dire consequences whether it is the alcohol we can legally purchase at local stores, or drugs like fentanyl or cocaine.
Knowing how drugs affect the brain is one way to understand how drugs affect us as people and as a society. Once we accept that addiction is the brains natural response to excessive drug use, we can eventually de-stigmatize it.
If you or a loved one need help for an alcohol or drug addiction, youre not alone. At least 1 in 7 people suffer from some form of substance addiction. Sadly, only about 10 percent of those seek out the help they need.
Dont continue to suffer in silence. You and your family deserve to experience a life well-lived, a life that is healthy, happy and drug-free.
What Happens To Your Brain When You Misuse Prescription Opioids
When opioids enter the brain, they attach to molecules on cells known as opioid receptors. These receptors are located in many areas of the brain and body, especially areas involved in feelings of pain and pleasure, as well as a part of the brain that regulates breathing.
Opioids affect the brain’s “reward circuit,” causing euphoria and flooding the brain with the chemical messenger dopamine. Surges of dopamine in the reward circuit encourage you to continue pleasurable but unhealthy behaviors like taking drugs, leading you to repeat the behavior again and again. Repeated surges from drug-taking can lead to addiction.
Learn more about how the brain works and what happens when a person misuses drugs. And, check out how the brain responds to natural rewards and to drugs.
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Different Drugs Different Effects
Drugs affect your body’s central nervous system. They affect how you think, feel and behave. The three main types are depressants, hallucinogens and stimulants:
- Depressants slow or ‘depress’ the function of the central nervous system. They slow the messages going to and from your brain. In small quantities depressants can cause a person to feel relaxed and less inhibited. In large amounts they may cause vomiting, unconsciousness and death. Depressants affect your concentration and coordination, and slow your ability to respond to situations. It is important to not operate heavy machinery while taking depressants. Alcohol, cannabis, GHB, opiates and benzodiazepines are examples of depressants.
- Hallucinogens distort your sense of reality. You may see or hear things that are not really there, or see things in a distorted way. Other effects can include emotional and psychological euphoria, jaw clenching, panic, paranoia, gastric upset and nausea. Ketamine, LSD, PCP, ‘magic mushrooms’ and cannabis are examples of hallucinogens.
- Stimulants speed or ‘stimulate’ the central nervous system. They speed up messaging to and from the brain, making you feel more alert and confident. This can cause increased heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature, reduced appetite, agitation and sleeplessness. In large amounts stimulants may cause anxiety, panic, seizures, stomach cramps and paranoia. Caffeine, nicotine, amphetamines , cocaine and ecstasy are examples of stimulants.
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 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.
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Drug Use And Mental Illness: Confusion In The Brain
There is a reciprocal connection between drug abuse and mental illness. For some people, mental illness precedes addiction. Self-medicating to escape the symptoms of mental illness in not an uncommon path to addiction. Mental illness often comes with emotional pain and confusion that can be mitigated temporarily with psychoactive drugs.
Self-medicating is never a good idea, however, for a number of reasons. Controlling or overcoming side effects without proper medical guidance is very difficult. In most cases, when drug addiction follows mental illness, the mental illness actually becomes worse.
Most mental illnesses have to do with abnormal brain chemistry. There is a lot going on in the brain, and just a small deviation in one or two neurons or neurotransmitters can change brain functioning. Adding drug abuse to the mix, which also changes brain chemistry, will just compound the problems in the long run.
Mental illnesses need to be professionally diagnosed and treated. In the presence of addiction, the mental illness cannot be properly assessed until the drugs are removed from the system. Brain chemistry is too complicated to diagnose in the presence of brain-altering substances.
Cognitive Deficits In Chronic Drug Abuse
Drug abusers who progress to the second stage of addiction are subject to withdrawal when they initiate abstinence. Many drugs produce cognition-related withdrawal symptoms that may make abstinence more difficult. These include:
nicotinedeficits in working memory and declarative learning .
Nicotine provides a familiar example of cognitive changes in withdrawal. In both chronic smokers and animal models of nicotine addiction, cessation of nicotine administration is associated with deficits in working memory, attention, associative learning, and serial addition and subtraction . Moreover, it has been shown that the severity of decreases in cognitive performance during periods of smoking abstinence predicts relapse . Although these deficits usually dissipate with time, a dose of nicotine will rapidly ameliorate them a situation that may contribute to some relapses. Thus, chronic substance abuse can lead to cognitive deficits that are particularly pronounced during early periods of abstinence.
While the cognitive deficits associated with withdrawal from drugs are often temporary, long-term use can also lead to lasting cognitive decline. The nature of deficits varies with the specific drug, the environment, and the users genetic makeup . In general, however, they impair the ability to learn new patterns of thought and behavior that are conducive to successful response to treatment and recovery.
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Rewarding The Brain: How Addictions Develop
The brain regulates temperature, emotion, decision-making, breathing, and coordination. This major organ of the body also impacts physical sensations in the body, cravings, compulsions, and habits. Under the influence of a powerful and harmful chemical, individuals abusing substances like Benzodiazepines or Heroin can alter the function of their brain.
Drugs interact with the limbic system in the brain to release strong feel-good emotions, affecting the individuals body and mind. Individuals continue taking drugs to support the intense feel-good emotions the brain releases this creates a cycle of drug use and intense highs. Eventually, they take the drug just to feel normal.
What Happens To Your Brain When You Use Inhalants
The lungs absorb inhaled chemicals into the bloodstream very quickly, sending them throughout the brain and body. Nearly all inhalants produce a “high” by slowing down brain activity. Nitrites, in contrast, expand and relax blood vessels.
Many brain systems may be involved in producing effects of different inhalants. Knowing how the brain functions helps us understand what happens during drug use.
Inhalants often contain more than one chemical. Some chemicals leave the body quickly, but others stay for a long time and get absorbed by fatty tissues in the brain and central nervous system. Over the long term, the chemicals can cause serious problems:
1 Crean RD, Crane NA, Mason BJ. An evidence based review of acute and long-term effects of cannabis use on executive cognitive functions. Journal of Addiction Medicine 2011 5:1-8.
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How The Brain Works
The brain is an intricate circuit of signals and responses that controls our actions, thoughts, and emotions. Neurotransmitters, the brains chemical messengers, send signals to distinct sections of the brain. In turn, neuroreceptors accept those signals, and they turn the signals into actions.
Think of the brain as a computer. Neurotransmitters are like the coding within the computer, telling it what functions to perform. Neuroreceptors, on the other hand, are what you see happening on the computer screen as a result of the coding.
In order to understand how drugs affect the brain, we need to dive into the specific parts that are affected. The cerebral cortex, limbic system, and brain stem all are significantly impacted by drugs.
- Cerebral cortex: Contains your sensory skills and your motor skills . These areas function together to determine intellect, personality, and even what languages you can speak.
- Limbic system: Controls your emotions, memory, pleasure responses and learning ability. This is where your fight or flight responses are located. The limbic system is above your brainstem and beneath your cerebral cortex.
- Brain stem: Controls the bodys basic functions, such as sleeping, eating, heart rate, and breathing. The spinal cord is linked to the brain stem and helps the brain send and receive signals to the rest of your body. The brain and spinal cord make up your nervous system, so without this function, your brain will be unaware of what is happening in your body.
What Is Brain Injury From Drug Use
Brain injury resulting from drug or alcohol use can range from minor damage to brain cells to severe physical damage such as in the case of brain hypoxia due to overdose.. Some of these consequences can be more serious and/or persistent, such as in the case of traumatic brain injury , stroke, and WernickeKorsakoff syndrome.1,2,3 Others can include potentially reversible changes such as mild brain atrophy and changes to white matter.4,5
Brain injury or other neurological complications can be a direct or indirect result of substance use. Brain hypoxia can result from an overdose of opioids, for example this is a result of opioids can significantly decrease the bodys respiratory drive. They can also occur due to poor health and nutrition, accidents, or increased risk-taking behaviors people engage in while theyre intoxicated or because they have a substance use disorder.3,6
Certain substances may have neurotoxic effects at high doses or with chronic exposure. These are substances that may cause damage or injury to brain cells. Taking these substances, especially over longer periods of time or at certain times in the human aging process, could increase your risk of suffering from substance-related brain changes or neurological issues. For example, high-dose or chronic amphetamine use may accelerate and enhance a persons age-related decline in dopaminergic function.1
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Are Changes In The Brain From Drug Use Reversible
Certain brain changes can be persistent or permanent, but this can vary widely depending on the type of injury and the substance of abuse. Many substance-related neurological complications or consequences may also be reversible.
WKS, for instance, may present with more chronic and debilitating effects, but when caught early and with proper treatment, WKS might be reversible in certain cases. Research has shown that even people who have suffered from a stroke can make some degree of recovery. Studies have also shown that brain shrinkage and reduced white matter volume associated with alcohol abuse may be reversible.24,25,26,27
NIDA explains that some of the neurological damage to the dopaminergic system appear, at least partly, to be reversible, with many neurological markers for nerve damage returning to normal after several months of abstinence.28 The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse points out that although it can take time, most people suffering from alcohol addiction will experience at least some improvement in brain structure and functioning with abstinence.3
Your Brain On Drugs: How The Damage Is Done And How To Undo It
The study of the human brain has made great progress in recent years. In 2015, for example, new discoveries were made in the link between the brain and the immune system, new details were revealed about how the brain changes as we age and new insights were gained into the development of depression and diet, loneliness and even Facebook activity.
A more detailed understanding of the complexities of brain science helps us better understand how drugs work in the brain, as well as their long-term implications of drug abuse and addiction on both the brain and the body. Knowing the effects of drugs on the brain can lead to more effective ways of reversing the damage.
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Don’t Wait Get Help Now
Since itâs possible for your brain to associate a drug with many people, places, or things, itâs crucial for you to get medical help for drug abuse. Treatments can help you get sober, avoid your triggers, and embrace healthy habits. Bordnick says that an effective treatment plan also examines your daily life, which can include your job, family, and environment.
âIt’s a combined form of treatment that I believe is most effective,â Bordnick says.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.
Your Brains Pleasure Center
Literature on drugs and addiction often mentions the pleasure center of the brain. In fact, pleasure is not perceived in just one area of the brain. Theres actually a reward system in the brain thats made up of a group of interconnected glands and other structures, including many of the glands responsible for behavior. The pituitary gland is part of the reward system that circulates the feeling of pleasure throughout the body.
Your brains reward system is designed to reinforce positive experiences so youll repeat those actions. Its like an internal conditioning mechanism that incentivizes good deeds with pleasure.
Opioids Effect On The Brain
Opioids have become a national epidemic. In America, more than 130 people die every day from overdosing on opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Opioids are highly addictive, whether they are illicit drugs or prescription pain killers.
These drugs are called opioids partly because they activate the opioid receptors on nerve cells, mimicking the effects of pain-relieving chemicals that would otherwise be produced naturally. Opioids, though, also release high levels of dopamine, leading to the intense feelings of euphoria and pleasure caused by other drugs.
Opioids are particularly addictive because long-term use changes the way nerve cells work in the brain even when someone is taking them as prescribed to treat pain.
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 brains 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.
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Here Is What An Addicted Brain Looks Like In An Mri
Stopping drug use doesnt immediately return the brain to normal. Some drugs have toxic effects that can kill neuronsand most of these cells will not be replaced. While changes to connections between neurons in the brain may not be permanent, some last for months. Some research suggests the changes may even last for years.
Long-lasting brain changes can make it challenging for individuals struggling with addiction to stay drug-free. They often experience intense cravings for years, which can lead to relapse. However, the brain has neuroplasticity. That means it can repair itself, over time.
What Drugs Release Dopamine In The Brain
All addictive drugs trigger the release of dopamine.6 In past years, it was believed that dopamine was directly responsible for the intense euphoric high that a drug produced, but experts now believe that dopamine plays a more complicated role.4
Dopamine surges signal to the brain that an activity should be remembered and makes it easier for it to be repeated. For example, if a person enjoys a nice meal, a little surge of dopamine occurs to help the brain remember to eat that meal again. This role dopamine plays in repetition of behavior helps us create habits.4
Drugs produce much larger bursts of dopamine than a natural reward like a meal would, however, so they create a verystrong connection between taking the drug, the pleasure that comes afterward, and all of the cues around the person that are linked to their drug consumption . As these connections are created and strengthened, the brain begins learning to prioritize getting and taking drugs over seeking out natural, healthy rewards.4
Because dopamine helps to create such powerful connections in the brain, the external cues associated with drug use can trigger overwhelming drug cravings years after a person has gotten clean.4 This is one of the reasons that recovery is a lifetime pursuit and that relapse is so common.
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