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How Do Drugs Affect the Brain?

The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It’s responsible for every single action we do; it’s required for talking, eating, driving, singing, moving, and everything else. The brain is made up of chemical compounds known as neurotransmitters. These transfer information from the brain to the different parts of the body. So when it comes to substances and alcohol, how do drugs affect the brain? 

Certain drugs end up disrupting the communication between these neurotransmitters. These effects on the brain are what cause a person to become dependent on a drug and eventually fall into addiction. As time goes on, certain drugs can end up causing permanent damage to a person’s brain if left untreated. Certain substances can be dangerous to the brain and other organs in the body. If you or a loved one is dealing with a substance abuse problem or addiction, Harmony Place may be able to help. 

How Does the Brain Work?

When pondering the question, “How do drugs affect the brain?” we must first understand how the brain works on a daily basis. Throughout the body, there are cells called neurons — these are in charge of carrying messages between the brain and the body. While these neurons interact with each other they release chemical substances called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters eventually attach to the receptors of other neurons. These signals between the neurons and receptors are what enable us to walk, talk, and function in our daily lives.

The brain is like an advanced computer using neurons and receptors to transmit information back and forth. Drugs can end up disrupting these signals, which in turn cause imbalances and other problems. As one of the most important organs in the human body, it’s important to be aware of the impact drugs/alcohol can have on it. 

How Do Drugs Affect the Brain Over Time?

Drugs disrupt the way neurons receive, send, and process signals from neurotransmitters. Certain drugs like heroin can mimic the structure of regular neurotransmitters which in turn activate certain neurons. While the structure of these chemicals may be similar, drugs don’t activate neurons in the same way natural neurotransmitters do. This creates an imbalance and disruption in how signals are sent across the body. 

When it comes to the brain’s chemicals, drugs like cocaine and amphetamines can make the brain release an unnatural amount of neurotransmitters. This interfaces with the natural recycling process of the brain’s chemicals and further messes with the communication across the body.  

What Parts of the Brain Are Affected by Drugs?

Drugs can impact various parts of the brain. Some of these areas are responsible for life-sustaining functions as well as the reward system. Since certain drugs impact these vital areas, a person is more vulnerable to developing an addiction or dependence on the drug. Let’s take a look at these areas:

The Basal Ganglia 

The basal ganglia play a big role in the pleasurable feeling we get when we eat, socialize, or have sex. It’s responsible for the positive forms of motivation we feel. This area is usually referred to as the brain’s “reward circuit.” Some drugs can create an overflow of chemicals in this region — this is what creates the euphoric high in certain drugs. 

As someone continues to use mind-altering drugs, their brain becomes accustomed to having the drug in their system. Over time, this ends up numbing the sensitivity of the reward circuit. This explains why people tend to lose interest or pleasure in regular activities after they’ve become addicted/dependent on a drug.

The Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for all the thinking, problem-solving, decision making, and planning in the brain. Out of all the brain areas, this is one of the last to mature (which makes teens especially vulnerable to drug use). Since drug use affects both the basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex, those who abuse substances tend to impulsively seek more drug use. Addiction can be extremely painful and as use continues it can become harder to overcome. 

The Extended Amygdala

This area plays an important role in the stressful feelings associated with anxiety, anger, unease, and other feelings. These emotions are directly related to the symptoms of drug withdrawal. Once the effects and “high” of a drug have faded out a person is left with the craving to use again and withdrawal symptoms. As drug use continues, this area gets more and more sensitive. This will escalate to the point where a person may use drugs or alcohol just to get relief from these feelings. 

The Connection Between Drug Use and Pleasure

Surprisingly, the euphoria and “high” a person gets from drug use are still barely understood. The accepted explanation is a surge of chemicals that directly affect the body’s endorphins (natural opioids). It also has an impact on the reward circuit of the brain. When someone eats or socializes, there are short bursts of pleasure. However, when a person is using drugs, their brain is flooded with neurotransmitters. This creates an intense feeling of pleasure that the brain will want to replicate in the future. This is where the slippery slope towards addiction begins. 

When it comes to understanding how do drugs affect the brain, the brain’s natural chemicals are vital to the answer. Many researchers look towards dopamine (a neurotransmitter related to pleasure) as an explanation for the euphoric high drugs give off. Dopamine is also responsible for getting a person to repeat a certain pleasure-inducing activity. 

How Does Dopamine Affect Future Drug Use?

A healthy brain typically interprets feelings of pleasure as activities that should be repeated. Eating, listening to music, having sex, and socializing are all examples of beneficial and pleasurable experiences. When someone experiences these activities, their body lets off a surge of dopamine, signaling to the brain that this activity should be remembered and repeated.

Drugs usually create much larger surges of dopamine, an unnatural amount. This reinforces the idea that a person should continue using this particular drug. Sometimes, this urge can get to the point where a person may go to far lengths to use the drug again. This is where a person’s drug addiction truly evolves. 

Over time, simple social cues and indicators can become correlated to drug use. Simply seeing these cues can trigger an intense urge to use the drug. This reflex can stick with a person for a long time, even if they’ve gotten treatment. These cues are often referred to as ‘triggers’ when it comes to drug use. Even if a person has been sober for years, they may get cravings when visiting an old neighborhood or seeing an old friend they used to do drugs with. 

Drug Addictiveness vs. Natural Rewards

One may wonder what’s the difference between the natural rewards of the brain and the rewards of drug use. This comes down to the intensity and level at which the brain is affected. The level at which a drug user’s brain is affected uses fewer neurotransmitters in the reward circuit than natural rewards do. Over time, the brain starts to become desensitized to natural rewards, which is why those who have an addiction lose interest in activities they used to enjoy. 

This flat, depressed, and unmotivated feeling stems from the brain’s interaction with frequent drug use. In order to experience some level of pleasure, the person has no choice but to use drugs again. This creates a cycle of drug use, followed by a hopeless and flat mood afterward. Not to mention a person may begin to build a tolerance to the drug; which means they’ll have to use more of a drug to experience its desired effects. 

Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment

How do drugs affect the brain? It’s a topic that only paints part of the picture. The truth is drugs affect the brain, the body, and almost every part of a person’s life. With addiction comes the negative effects and behavioral changes that create stress and pain for everyone involved. While overcoming addiction may be hard, it is possible with the right level of care. Harmony Place offers excellent treatment for people from all walks of life. 

Addiction treatment options available at Harmony Place include the following:

Don’t wait to get treatment, start the journey towards recovery today.

Harmony Place is Here for You

Now that you understand how drugs affect the brain, it’s time to look to treatment options. Drugs can have permanent and debilitating effects on a person’s mind and body over time. This is why it’s crucial to enlist the help of qualified professionals that are on your side. At Harmony Place, we’re ready to help you start your journey towards sobriety and a better life. Give us a call today to learn about our addiction treatment programs and how to get help.