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How Do Stimulants Affect The Brain

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What Is The Best Pain Medication For Chronic Back Pain

How Stimulants Affect the Brain: Pros, Cons & Risks of Addiction Stanford Psychiatrist Anna Lembke

Acetaminophen is usually recommended as a first line treatment for mild to moderate pain, such as from a skin injury, headache or musculoskeletal condition. Acetaminophen is often prescribed to help manage osteoarthritis and back pain. It may also be combined with opioids to reduce the amount of opioid needed.

How The Brain Gets Addicted To Drugs

Drugs change the way our brains process information. Just like with anything in life, our brain develops certain associations with drugs in our system and learns to only produce certain effects and reactions when specific chemicals are present. Nerve cells no longer send and receive information the same way once drugs have been thrown into the mix. Over time, the natural balance of the brains chemistry is affected.

Our own natural needs are diminished as the brain becomes fixated on receiving pleasure. Dopamine levels surge and then plummet after we use drugs that promote this feeling of pleasure in our brains. Over a period of time, the brain adapts to the process and begins to crave the same feeling over and over again.

Some people become addicted to drugs after only a few times while others may use for weeks or months before they develop an addiction. When learning about how drugs affect the brain, its important to also understand how long the effects last.

How Do Prescription Drugs Affect The Brain

Prescription drugs are controlled substances and can only be obtained with a prescription from a doctor. Before handing out prescriptions, doctors weigh the benefits and dangers of their use by a patient. The growing popularity of prescription drug abuse comes from the fact that these drugs are taken to elicit feelings of well-being and euphoria.

Prescription addiction purely to feel good is growing. In the United States, about 54 million people reported using prescription drugs for recreational purposes. Over the mid and long term, prescription drug abuse can affect how the brain functions.

Since the brain manages all functioning and thoughts, it makes sense that a drug would have to travel to the brain to have any effect. Think of it this way: an over-the-counter cough suppressant relaxes the cough reflex so that the individual can get some sleep. That reflex is regulated by the brain, so the active ingredient in cough medicine has to change the messages in the brain to be effective.

Once there, the chemicals in the cough suppressant interfere with normal brain chemistry to produce the desired effect. Prescription drug abuse affects the brain in a similar way. In this article, we look at the different types of prescription drugs that are frequently abused, the categories they fall into and the effects each group has on the brain.

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Health Effects Of Stimulants


Stimulants are a class of drugs that stimulate the bodys central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord. They increase the levels of catecholaminesa family of brain chemicals that includes dopamine. These chemicals are used in the brain processes to signal reward and motivation. By increasing catecholamine levels, stimulants can temporarily increase a persons energy level and alertness. Stimulants may also cause other changes in the body. The effects vary according to the specific drug, the amount of the drug, and how the drug is taken. For instance, stimulants that are snorted or injected have more immediate effects than drugs that are swallowed.

Stimulants include the caffeine found in coffee, medications such as methylphenidate , and abused drugs, such as methamphetamine and cocaine. Stimulants can have useful propertiesunder the right circumstances. For example, doctors use some stimulants to treat disorders such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder . However, when abused, stimulants can pose serious health risks to your brain and your body. Read on to find out the effects of the following stimulants:

  • Cocaine
  • Prescription stimulants, such as amphetamines and methylphenidate
  • Methamphetamine
  • Nicotine
  • Prescription stimulants can reduce ADHD symptoms and increase focus and attention in people who have ADHD.
  • No medical uses.

Getting Help

Amphetamine Dependence Tolerance And Withdrawal


It is possible to build up a tolerance to amphetamines, which means the person using the drug needs to take larger doses to achieve the same effect.

Over time, the body may come to depend on amphetamines just to function normally. The person craves the drug and their psychological dependence can make someone anxious if access is denied, even temporarily.

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What Does The Nervous System Control

The nervous system ultimately controls everything we do, from simple tasks such as walking, thinking, breathing, and feeling.

The nervous system is designed by the spinal cord, brain, and nerves within the human body. The nerves function is to carry important messages to and from the body so the brain can interpret what the body needs and take the required action.

Can Prescription Stimulant Use Lead To Substance Use Disorder And Addiction

Yes, misuse of prescription stimulants can lead to a substance use disorder , which takes the form of addiction in severe cases. Long-term use of stimulants, even as prescribed by a doctor, can cause a person to develop a tolerance, which means that he or she needs higher and/or more frequent doses of the drug to get the desired effects. An SUD develops when continued use of the drug causes issues, such as health problems and failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home. Concerns about use should be discussed with a health care provider.

If a person develops an SUD and stops use of the prescription stimulant, he or she can experience withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • fatigue

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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 brains chemical levels, and its 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 users addiction.

Signs And Symptoms Of Stimulant Abuse

How Stimulants Affect Brain Behavior – Attitude Behaviour Relationship — Music and mental health 03

As with any prescription drug, the intended use of stimulants can give way to abuse and dependency. Figuring out when someone has crossed the line from proper stimulant use into addiction can be difficult. Here are some common warning signs and symptoms that may indicate stimulant abuse:

  • Intense drug or food cravings
  • Headaches

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What Are The Other Health Effects Of Prescription Stimulants

Repeated misuse of prescription stimulants, even within a short period, can cause psychosis, anger, or paranoia. If the drug is injected, it is important to note that sharing drug injection equipment and having impaired judgment from drug misuse can increase the risk of contracting infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.

Areas Of The Brain Affected By Substance Use

While alcohol and drugs affect the entire brain, some regions are more involved with SUD than others. The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains the effects of drugs on the brain in the article Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction, which focuses on the overstimulation of three key brain areas: the basal ganglia, the extended amygdala, and the pre-frontal cortex.

  • The basal ganglia, associated with the brains reward system, recognizes pleasurable activities such as enjoying a good meal or having fun with friends. When overstimulated by drug use, though, it loses sensitivity to natural neurotransmitters, such as dopamine. With continued drug use, drugs become the only stimulus that activates this reward center.
  • The extended amygdala is associated with negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, and irritability. These are symptoms a person experiences when a substance leaves the bloodstream. To avoid the negative symptoms of withdrawal, individuals often take more drugs, creating a feedback loop.
  • The pre-frontal cortex is the area of the brain that governs decision making, logic, problem-solving, self-control, and impulse control. When this area of the brain is affected by drugs, confusion and poor decisions dominate the cognitive process.

Several drugs, including alcohol, affect the cerebellum. The cerebellum assists with muscle control and coordination, which is why people who have had too many drinks may stumble and weave when they walk.

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How Can A Methamphetamine Overdose Be Treated

Because methamphetamine overdose often leads to a stroke, heart attack, or organ problems, first responders and emergency room doctors try to treat the overdose by treating these conditions, with the intent of:

  • restoring blood flow to the affected part of the brain
  • restoring blood flow to the heart
  • treating the organ problems

Yes, methamphetamine is highly addictive. When people stop taking it, withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • anxiety
  • intense drug cravings

Animal Studies: Neurotoxicity And Implications For Therapeutic Treatment

Chapter 4

Many of the behavioral effects of amphetamines that have been observed in humans can be demonstrated in experimental animals. These include arousal, hyperactivity, stereotypic perseverative movements, psychomotor depression, cognitive impairment, hallucinatory-like behaviors and chronic self-administration. Evidence indicates that the effects of amphetamine on the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine play critical roles in eliciting these effects. After chronic exposure to amphetamines, animals exhibit either tolerance or sensitization during subsequent drug administration, indicating adaptations in the neurobiological substrates of these behaviors.

In humans, markers of striatal dopamine function decline with age. Nuclear medicine procedures have indicated that availability of the DAT in the striatum decline at a rate of 67% per decade,, , and measures of nigrostriatal neurons have indicated a loss of 70% in the putamen after the age of 55 years. In addition, the age-related loss of dopamine appears to accelerate after the age of 60 years., One important question is, Does exposure to amphetamine during development and/or early adulthood accelerate and enhance the age-related decline in dopaminergic function? In addition, are humans at increased risk from neurotoxicity when amphetamine is administered in late adulthood or senescence?

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Are Stimulants Addictive

Stimulants are highly addictive, sometimes with as little as one use. Over time, users can build a tolerance, requiring more of the drug to feel high and eventually just to feel normal. Once addicted, going without the drug can bring on withdrawal symptoms such as depression, anxiety, fatigue, insomnia and intense drug cravings. Some users find that theyre unable to feel pleasure from ordinarily enjoyable activities such as eating or sex. To avoid these feelings, people use stimulants again and again, thereby perpetuating the addictive cycle.

The Danger Of Stimulants

Stimulant drugs damage the brains decision-making abilities, revving up the course of addiction and making it harder for people to quit, research suggests.

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Stimulant drug abuse packs a triple-whammy to people’s decision-making abilities, hampering their reasoning and increasing impulsive and compulsive behaviors, according to research presented at APA’s 2011 Annual Convention by Trevor W. Robbins, a behavioral and clinical neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge in England.

These three tendencies all have slightly different origins in the brain, he said, but they all contribute to the story of stimulant drug addictionclouding people’s judgment during the early stages of addiction, and then making it harder for them to quit.

“These drug abusers … have poisoned their frontal cortex and produced decision-making deficits,” Robbins said.

Poor judgment

During the early stages of stimulant use, people often make a bad betunderestimating the number of times they can use cocaine, for example, before becoming dependent. This tendency may be explained in part by the fact that stimulant drug use itself makes people worse gamblers, according to one study by Robbins and his colleagues, published in Neuropsychopharmacology .

In a follow-up study, the researchers depleted serotonin levels among healthy participants and found that the participants made poorer decisions, but their decision-making speed was not slowed.

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Amphetamine Abuse: Sources And Extent

Resale of prescribed amphetamines constitutes one source of illicit stimulants available for abuse. In addition, licit dextroamphetamine is a substrate for manufacture of illicit methamphetamine, which can then be smoked or injected. One of the easiest ways to make methamphetamine is by addition of a single methyl group to the amino group on the middle carbon atom of amphetamine. Conversely, smoked methamphetamine thermally degrades to yield amphetamine by N-demethylation.,

Insufficient physician follow-up care for stimulant-treated children contributes to the problem. A recent study in the Netherlands suggested that such care was deficient, with one of five patients receiving no follow-up care, and those who did receive care averaging only two physician visits per year. In addition to the risk of stimulant abuse associated with ADHD treatment, clinical reports estimate the risk of addiction from amphetamines prescribed for sleep disorders at 13%. Additional risk accrues in patients prescribed higher amphetamine dosages for longer periods, and those with comorbid psychiatric disease.

Whos Most Likely To Become Addicted

Why Stimulants Help ADHD

Each persons body and brain are different. People also react differently to drugs. Some love the feeling the first time they try it and want more. Others hate it and never try again.

Not everyone who uses drugs becomes addicted. But it can happen to anyone and at any age. Some things may raise your chances of addiction, including:

  • Family history. Your genes are responsible for about half of your odds. If your parents or siblings have problems with alcohol or drugs, youre more likely as well. Women and men are equally likely to become addicted.
  • Early drug use. Childrens brains are still growing, and drug use can change that. So taking drugs at an early age may make you more likely to get addicted when you get older.
  • Mental disorders. If youre depressed, have trouble paying attention, or worry constantly, you have a higher chance of addiction. You may turn to drugs as a way to try to feel better. A history of trauma in your life also makes you more likely to have addiction.
  • Troubled relationships. If you grew up with family troubles and arent close to your parents or siblings, it may raise your chances of addiction.


You may have one or more of these warning signs:

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Brain Therapies For Addiction

When someone battling addiction enters a facility, they receive medication and have access to innovative treatments. A common treatment to stabilize and soothe the brain after addiction is biofeedback therapy. This allows a professional to monitor the brain. They can figure out how to improve brain activity, reducing the effects of addiction and unhealthy impulses.

Biofeedback uses electroencephalograms . EEGs are typically used to help individuals who have suffered traumatic brain injuries and can be helpful to individuals with obsessive compulsive disorder and other brain disorders. Biofeedback reduces stress and reduces involuntary functions. This therapy can also include meditation, guided imagery, and muscle relaxation.

When this is combined with therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy , biofeedback improves the individuals involuntary functions, like heartbeat, blood pressure, and muscle contraction. Neurofeedback, or EEQ therapy, is a type of biofeedback. This therapy is a brain-training treatment. In the case of addiction, this therapy monitors the brains activity. It helps patients to reduce stress and anxiety and can treat compulsions. The end result of both therapies is the administrator rewarding the brain to recover how it functions.

Stimulants Can Cause A Brain Imbalance

Stimulants rely on chemical messengers in the brain called neurotransmitters to jump-start the nervous system, the brains control center. But instead of maintaining the brains chemical balance, stimulants increase the activity of two brain chemicals while leaving other neurotransmitters alone, creating an imbalance of neurotransmitters.

Stimulants over-activate dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine plays an important role in how we feel and experience pleasure. Dopamine also helps regulate our motivation and determines what we focus on and find interesting. Too much dopamine can cause anxiety, insomnia, mania, delusions, and paranoia. Norepinephrine is a stress hormone, increasing your heart rate and providing energy to your body. When overactivated, norepinephrine can lead to anxiety, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, jitteriness, excessive sweating, and organ stress.

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Effects Of Stimulant Drugs

Using stimulant drugs can lead to many health effects that can result in changes to both your heart and your brain, for a long-term period of time. The short and long-term effects of the drug on the body and brain will depend on many factors including what type of drug is being used, the length of time, dosage and the overall health condition of the person using.

How Sedatives Hypnotics And Anti


The next category of drugs are barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and sleep medication. These are sedatives, hypnotics or anti-anxiety drugs known as anxiolytics, also known as central nervous system depressants. They reduce the neural excitation by potentiating the effects of an inhibitory neurotransmitter known as gamma-aminobutyric acid . These GABA-mediated effects help to increase relaxation, relieve anxiety, and manage certain sleep conditions like insomnia.

The effects of prescription depressants on the brain include:

  • Mood swings.
  • Inappropriate aggressive or sexual behavior.
  • Memory and attention problems.
  • Feeling drowsy or stoned.
  • Coma.

Much like chronic opioid abuse, long-term abuse of prescription depressants can lead to the development of severe physical dependence.

Individuals have become physically dependent in as little as 4 weeks. This means that they likely will experience some degree of acute withdrawal should they try to stop taking the drug on their own. Many people who try to stop taking these drugs relapse because the brain creates intense cravings for them.

This increase in dopamine then assists with motivation, pushing the user to become more productive. It also increases cognitive function. Norepinephrine, on the other hand, works to stabilize and calm the mind, which is why those who use a study drug like Adderall can feel entirely content and focused whilst working.

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