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The Effects of Drugs on the Brain

Article written by Chloe Nicosia

The human body’s most complex organ is the brain which acts as the center of all human activity. The brain is made up of different parts that work together to regulate the body’s basic functions. Different parts of the brain perform different functions and drugs can alter the areas of the brain that are necessary for these functions.

Drugs can affect different areas of the brain including the brain stem which controls the basic functions critical for life, such as breathing and heart rate. Drugs also affect the cerebral cortex which is divided into areas that work to control different functions. The frontal cortex is the brain’s thinking center and it controls the ability to think, make decisions, solve problems, and plan. In addition, the limbic system can also be affected by drug use. The limbic system contains the brain’s reward circuit as it links a number of brain structures together that regulate and control the ability to feel pleasure. The limbic system can be activated by healthy activities but can also be activated by commonly abused drugs.

The brain is the communication center of the body and consists of billions of nerve cells, or neurons. Networks of neurons transfer messages back and forth between different structures within the brain, spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system. These networks of nerves regulate and coordinate everything we think, feel, and do. Nerve cells in the brain send and receive messages in the form of chemical and electrical signals. When a cell receives a message, it is then processed and send to other neurons. These messages are normally carried between neurons by chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters attach to special areas on neurons called receptors. Neurotransmitters and their receptors act a bit like a lock and key, meaning that receptors can only forward messages when they react with the correct type of neurotransmitter.

What Drugs Do To The Brain

Drugs are chemicals and they affect the brain by interfering with the way in which neurons typically send, receive, and process information. Some types of drugs, such as heroin, can activate neurons as their chemical structure mimics that of a neurotransmitter. This fools the receptors, allowing drugs to attach to and activate neurons. While drugs can mimic the natural chemicals in the brain, the do not activate neurons in the same way as natural brain chemicals, leading to the transmission of abnormal messages. Other drugs, such as cocaine and amphetamines, actually cause neurons to release abnormally huge amounts of neurotransmitters or prevent the natural recycling of brain chemicals. These disruptions ultimately disrupt communication channels in the brain.

Most drugs that are abused target the brain’s reward system, either directly or indirectly. The drugs flood the brain’s circuit with dopamine which is a natural neurotransmitter, that when activated at normal levels, rewards natural behaviors. Drugs cause an overstimulation of the system, often producing euphoric effects that unfortunately can lead to repeated use.

The long term abuse of drugs can impair the way the brain functions. As drugs continue to be used, the brain will adjust to the overwhelming surges dopamine by not only reducing the number of receptors that are able to receive signals, but also by producing less dopamine. As a result, people who abuse drugs may have a seriously reduced ability to feel any pleasure. Research has shown that long term abuse of drugs can lead to profound changes in brain circuits and neurons which can severely compromise the brain’s long term health.

Drug abuse can have numerous negative effects on the brain, and can lead to permanent changes in how the brain operates. Drug addiction can seriously erode a person’s ability to make sound decisions. Anyone who needs assistance with drug abuse should seek the help of a qualified medical professional. The pages listed below provide additional information on how drugs affect the brain.

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