Drugs and the Effects on the Brain: How do Drugs Affect the Brain?
In a drug-free state, we feel pleasure when we indulge in life-sustaining activities like eating, having sex, sleeping, giving birth, and earning money. Neurotransmitters like dopamine, endorphins, and other chemicals are released into the brain when we perform those activities and they make us feel good. The pleasurable feelings become associated with the life-sustaining activities and we’re motivated to repeat those activities to feel more pleasure.
How do Drugs Cause us to Feel Pleasure?
Drugs and the effects on the brain change the natural action of chemical neurotransmitters like dopamine and disrupt the brain’s communication system. Certain drugs create high levels of dopamine in the brain along with sensations of intense pleasure. However, because the euphoria is caused by a drug rather a life-sustaining activity, drugs can become more important than life-sustaining activities.
Is the Pleasure Generated by Drugs Stronger Than the Pleasure Generated by Life-Sustaining Activities?
Yes. Drugs and the effects on the brain can generate up to ten times more pleasure than life-sustaining activities. They can deliver this pleasure immediately. The feelings of euphoria generated by drugs also last longer than the pleasure generated by life-sustaining activities. When this occurs, the brain quickly learns to prefer drug-taking activities over life-sustaining activities.
How do Drugs and the Effects on the Brain Affect Long-Term Substance Abusers?
Long-term drug abuse impairs healthy functioning of the brain. When the brain experiences the high levels of pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters brought on by drugs, it reduces its own production of neurotransmitters to balance things out. The body says to itself, “I don’t need to produce pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters anymore because I’m getting what I need from drugs.” Essentially, the brain gets lazy about producing neurotransmitters because drugs are doing the job for it.
If drug abuse continues, the natural production of pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters can drop off sharply or stop altogether. As a result, the addict is no longer able to experience pleasure naturally; rather, he or she must rely on drugs to feel normal or to feel any pleasure at all. Additionally, because of the phenomena of tolerance, drugs like heroin and alcohol must be ingested in larger and larger amounts to get the desired effect.
Can Long-Term Drug Abuse Affect Other Brain Functions?
Yes it can. There is a neurotransmitter called glutamate that affects both pleasure and learning ability. Drug abuse can cause the brain to produce lower levels of glutamate and thereby impair cognitive function.
Strong associations are formed in the brain between drug use and the routines of daily life. When an addict stops taking drugs, these daily routines can become triggers that produce intense cravings for the drug. This phenomena can persist even in addicts who have been drug-free for many years.
Drug abuse can also impair critical judgment, memory, impulse control, and decision-making. Some drugs can be toxic to brain tissue, causing certain brain cells to die.
These disturbances in brain function are one of the main reasons why addicts are generally unable to stop using drugs on their own. Only with professional help, ongoing support, and new coping skills can a recovering drug abuser end the cycle of addiction and enjoy a normal life.