How Do Drugs Change Your Brain?

drugs and brainThe National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines your brain as “you – everything you think and feel, and who you are.” Not only does your brain regulate the basic functions of the body but it shapes your behavior and enables you to understand and respond to everything you experience.

Keeping this definition in mind, it’s not too surprising that drugs can have a negative impact on your brain. These changes are perhaps most profound in the developing brain of teens. Drugs have actually been found to change how the brain functions by altering the organization of pathways in the brain that support memory, attention, ability to learn, problem solving and emotions.

How Do Drugs Work in the Brain?
Our brain is made up of billions of cells, or neurons, which are organized into circuits and networks. Different brain circuits play different roles in coordinating and performing functions within the body. Networks of neurons send signals back and forth to each other and among different parts of the brain as well as to the spinal cord and nerves in the rest of the body, notes NIDA. Drugs mess with the way neurons send, receive and process signals in the brain. For example, drugs like marijuana and heroin activate neurons and cause abnormal messages to be sent through the network. Drugs like amphetamine or cocaine cause neurons to “release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals by interfering with transporters,” explains NIDA.

According to NIDA, the following brain areas are impacted by drug use:

  • The basal ganglia: Often called the brain’s “reward circuits,” the basal gangalia plays a big part in the pleasurable effects of healthy activities like eating, socializing and sex as well as the formation of habits and routines. Drugs over-activate this circuit – this is the “high” you feel from a drug – and make it difficult to feel pleasure from anything besides the drug.
  • The extended amygdala: This circuit, which plays a role in emotions like anxiety, irritability and unease, becomes increasingly sensitive with increased drug use. Over time, a person with a substance use disorder “uses drugs to get temporary relief from this discomfort rather than to get high,” notes NIDA.
  • The prefrontal cortex: This is the part of the brain that make teens most vulnerable to addiction. It powers our ability to think, plan, solve problems, make decisions and exert self-control over impulses. Drugs shift the balance between this circuit and the reward and stress circuits of the basal ganglia and extended amygdala and this causes a lack of impulse control and drug seeking behavior.
  • The brain stem: Opioids impact this part of the brain that controls basic functions critical to life, including heart rate, breathing and sleeping. This is why opioid overdoses can quickly result in depressed breathing and death.

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