The Effects of Drugs on the Human Brain
Our brains consist of different centers that control various bodily functions, enable thinking and reasoning, elicit emotional responses, and more. Three of the primary centers of the brain that drugs can effect include
The limbic system is often referred to as the brain’s reward center. It is responsible for making us feel pleasure when we eat, socialize, or have sex. It also affects our emotional responses to help us distinguish between positive emotions, like joy, and negative ones, like sadness.
Our brain remembers what types of activities bring us pleasure and make us feel happy. In a way, it encourages us to repeat these types of behaviors and avoid those that create negative responses.
2. Cerebral Cortex:
The cerebral cortex helps us process and interpret information from different sources using the senses of sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch. For instance, you accidentally touch a hot burner, and the cerebral cortex interprets this action as painful since we burned our hand. Conversely, touching something soft and warm can be interpreted as inviting and good.
The frontal cortex, situated at the front of the cerebral cortex, is where all of our thinking and thought processes occur. This part of the brain helps us reason, make decisions, solve problems, determine risks and rewards of our behaviors and actions, and communicate with others.
3. Brain Stem:
The brain stem is responsible for performing many of the body’s autonomic responses, like breathing, keeping our hearts beating, and so on. It also serves as a gateway between the other parts of the brain and body, by relaying signals and information to/from the brain through the central nervous system.
Drug abuse and addiction is a learned behavior reinforced by the effects of drugs on the human brain. Certain parts of the brain can be taught to remember what makes us feel good and is considered pleasurable and what is not. The brains of drug abusers and addicts have learned that using different types or combinations of drugs brings them pleasure.
Short-Term Effects of Drug Use on the Brain
The first time a person takes a drug, it can cause a host of different types of short-term effects. When the drug is introduced into the body, it interferes with normal brain functions. Certain types of drugs can mimic the natural neurotransmitters and cause the brain to activate different hormones and neurons.
Many types of drugs confuse the reward center in the brain and result in a high release of dopamine. Dopamine is a natural chemical that many people associate with pleasure. Yet, it is also a chemical that stimulates the brain in anticipation of a reward.
For instance, smoking marijuana can cause an increase in the release of dopamine, which can make one feel relaxed and at ease. Since it created pleasure, the brain remembers this response, which results in the need to smoke marijuana again.
However, as this drug affects the brain neurotransmitters and the release of dopamine, it also affects senses. The sight or smell of marijuana can result in an increase in dopamine release based on the anticipated “reward” one will experience when actually smoking the marijuana. So, simply seeing or smelling marijuana could cause a pleasurable response in the brain.
On the other hand, if people take a drug and become sick and vomit, their brains will associate this with an unpleasant event. If they had a truly negative response, then they may not be as inclined to use the drug again.
Due to the complexity drugs have on the brain, certain drugs can have both positive and negative effects. If the positive effects outweigh the negative ones, then a person will be more likely to use the drug again.
To illustrate, you and your friends go out drinking and consume copious amounts of alcohol. As you become more intoxicated, someone asks if you want to try some cocaine, and you agree. After taking the cocaine, you start to vomit. However, a short time later, there is a significant release of dopamine, resulting in a euphoric feeling.
Even though you vomited, your brain is going to remember the euphoria you felt. As a result, your brain will “encourage” you to seek out this feeling again in the future. Additionally, certain types of drugs can create such strong positive responses in the body, a person becomes hooked after using or taking the drug once.
Aside from the “rewards” one might experience from using drugs, there are other short-term effects they could have on the brain, including:
- Slowed, elevated, or irregular heart rates. Drugs interfere with the brain stem and can alter heart rates.
- Changes to vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Drugs can alter how the brain responds to different stimuli through the senses.
- Issues with concentration, reasoning, and problem-solving. Drugs often impair our judgment and ability to make rational decisions.
- Lowered response and reaction times. Certain drugs slow down brain functioning and can affect our motor functions.
- Increased risky behaviors. One may be inclined to take greater risks, like engaging in unprotected sex or driving a car at very high speeds.
- Heightened emotional responses. Emotional responses are often elevated by drugs, including both positive and negative ones. Someone might be happy and laughing one moment, only to be sad and crying the next.
- Increased levels of energy. Some drugs can mimic increased energy levels, but, once they wear off, the person can end up sleeping for a day or longer.
- Amplified drowsiness or sleepiness. Alcohol and other depressant drugs can make one feel tired and lethargic more quickly.
Based upon the outcomes one experiences, if they are mostly interpreted by the brain as being positive “rewards,” it will further underscore one’s likelihood to use drugs again.
Long-Term Effects of Drugs on the Brain
Long-term drug use is developed from the stimulation of the brain’s reward center. Whenever this part of the brain results in pleasure, it automatically remembers this and indirectly teaches us to repeat the same behavior or activity again to achieve the same results.
Some drugs can cause the brain to release excess levels of dopamine than one experiences naturally from things they enjoy. In many cases, the release starts to occur immediately upon taking the drugs. Depending on the drug taken, the effects can be prolonged for hours at a time.
It is no wonder that abusing drugs is a behavior people will learn quickly when they are experiencing heightened states of pleasure. Initially, when someone first starts using and abusing drugs, they can feel like they are being constantly “rewarded” because there are other chemical processes at work within the brain.
The brain is not able to keep up with dopamine production because it is being depleted quickly each time a person uses. It, naturally, responds by slowing dopamine production because it interprets the heightened levels during drug use and an excess of it. Secondly, the brain will start to numb the receptors in the brain that can interpret “pleasure” signals.
These natural responses have a two-fold outcome on the drug user:
- Things they have used to find natural pleasure, like eating, having sex, or playing video games, are no longer satisfying. They may start to feel depressed, not care about their hygiene, or even push those closest to them away.
- In order to achieve any type of happiness, they will start using drugs more frequently in higher and higher dosages. The increase in usage is due to the brain developing a natural tolerance and refusing to release elevated dopamine levels. In other words, the drug user has to trick the brain into releasing dopamine by using a larger amount of the drug.
Furthermore, long-term drug use can alter how the different centers in the brain function. As the brain attempts to compensate for continued drug use, cognitive functions can become impaired. The brain can also become conditioned to certain cues that can trigger one’s desire to take and use drugs. Drug users might even start to notice they are having problems with their short-term memories.
The longer a person continues to use and abuse drugs, there are increased risks of heart attacks, stroke, brain damage, seizures, comas, and even death. Aside from the long-term effects on the brain, drug abuse can damage the kidneys, heart, lungs, and other organs and systems in the body.
Once a person is addicted to drugs, it is difficult to stop without help from an addiction treatment center. The effect of drugs on the human brain can remain for years after getting help and no longer using drugs. This is one reason why addicts continue to go to group counseling and support meetings.
If you have started using drugs or have a drug or alcohol addiction and you want help to overcome your addition, BlueCrest Recovery Center is here to help. We can also lend support for loved ones and family members. Please feel free to contact us at (973) 453-5384 today to take the first steps to recovery.