Drugs and the Brain: Changing You One Neuron at a Time

For those that remember the television commercial, it turns out if your brain is an egg, the idea of drugs being a hot frying pan isn’t so far off.

Abusing drugs of any kind affects brain functions we use every day to live. Some effects on the brain are temporary, such as a hangover from alcohol, but >some are permanent and irreversible, such as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which can cause muscular paralysis and/or amnesia in alcoholics. Every drug, not just alcohol, affects the brain; it is just important to note that any amount of any drug also affects the brain. However, before we can understand what happens to our brains on drugs, we need to understand what happens in our brains without drugs.

What does my brain do?

The human brain is an unimaginably complex organ that functions more efficiently than any computer ever built. To actually answer the question of what a brain does would take a mountain of essays. However, regarding the brain and drug use, a simplified version will do.

The brain is comprised of 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. Essentially, there are releasing neurons and receiving neurons. The releasing neurons disperse chemicals called neurotransmitters, which carry messages all around the body. These ‘messages’ include anything from blinking our eyelids to solving a math problem. Receiving neurons have landing pads for neurotransmitters, and once they land, the message is ‘unlocked’ and carried out by the body.

Basically, the brain is a communications center that functions as the command post for the entire body. Brain cells communicate, and we live. When actions are performed that are conducive to survival, such as eating, sleeping, having sex, etc., the brain rewards us by releasing >dopamine, or sometimes serotonin. These are the two neurotransmitters responsible for happiness. This is called the reward system, and is crucial to our survival.

What do the drugs do?

drugs-and-the-brainDrug abuse alters the way the brain communicates, especially regarding the reward system. Drugs force the brain to produce up to ten times the normal amount of dopamine. The brain therefore believes something good has happened, and will crave a repeat of the dopamine flow. More and more will be needed to get dopamine levels back to normal, resulting in higher tolerance.

Also, the activities that create regular amounts of dopamine, such as eating or having sex, become less important to the brain than drug abuse, which creates abnormal amounts. The end result is addiction, because the brain tells the body it needs the extra dopamine.

The Vicious Cycle

You’ve never done hard drugs. One night, you use heroin, and extremely high levels of dopamine are released. The next night, you use the same amount as before, but don’t get quite as high. You double up your dose to feel the same effect. Already, you have a higher tolerance. The next night, you need even more. By the time the week is over, you realize you haven’t eaten or slept. Your brain has replaced the dopamine it receives from normal functions with the dopamine it receives from the drug. Within a week, you’re addicted. Now, on top of needing it like you need sleep, you need more every time.

The worst part of this vicious cycle is not actually what happens to your brain on the drugs, but what happens to your brain when you’re not on them but addicted to them. Once addicted, your brain will produce less dopamine than usual for normal events. For instance, a good meal and a nap may not do anything emotionally for an addict. This can cause severe depression. Consider this quote from drugabuse.gov:

Just as we turn down the volume on a radio that is too loud, the brain adjusts to the overwhelming surges in dopamine (and other neurotransmitters) by producing less dopamine or by reducing the number of receptors that can receive signals. As a result, dopamine’s impact on the reward circuit of the brain of someone who abuses drugs can become abnormally low, and that person’s ability to experience any pleasure is reduced.

The bottom line is that drugs affect your brain in such a way that they become the only means by which an addict can feel pleasure. At that point, your brain might as well be a frying egg.