How the Brain Reacts to Illicit Drug Use
The brain remains the most sophisticated organ in the human body. Weighing three pounds and consisting of gray and white matter, the brain controls numerous activities. This organ participates in everything from the fundamentals of breathing to more complex actions that might include creating inventions.
Besides bodily functions, the brain formulates emotions and thoughts along with contributing to behaviors. Illicit drugs interfere with normal brain function in many different ways including triggering a compulsion toward habitual use.
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The Different Areas of the Brain and What They Do
Brain Stem – This area of the brain regulates heart rate, respiration, and sleep cycles, all of which remain vital for existence.
Limbic System – Also is known as the pleasure center. This region coordinates efforts with other cerebral structures to allow us to experience pleasure and satisfaction. When enjoying a particular food, for example, the limbic system activates and releases “feel good” chemicals that encourage us to repeat the experience. Street drugs also have the ability to falsely initiate this chemical release. The system also perceives emotions and may become abnormally influenced by mood-altering drugs.
Cerebral Cortex – The cerebral cortex comprises the outer portions of the brain and the different sections that control individualized functions. Specified regions govern each one of the five senses. The front of the cortex makes up the thinking portion of the brain which provides decision-making skills and problem-solving ability among other cognitive attributes.
Central Nervous System Communication
The brain, spinal column, and peripheral nerve complex contain billions of nerve cells. Neurons contained within the brain send messages back and forth between all structures of the central nervous system. This mass communication system regulates bodily actions, physical sensations, and thought processes.
Between Neurons – Each brain cell transmits and receives messages as an electrical impulse. These impulses travel from one neuron to the next.
Neurotransmission – Messages also travel from one neuron to the next via chemicals known as neurotransmitters.
Receptor Sites – Neurotransmitters attach to each neuron similar to a key in a lock via a specific location known as a receptor. A neurotransmitter must attach to the appropriate receptor before a neuron exacts a response.
Transporters – Also located on the neuron are these sites that reabsorb neurotransmitters, which stops the action of a neuron and prevents a signal from transferring onto the next neuron.
How Drugs Affect the Brain
Drugs are natural or synthetic chemicals and alter the brain’s communication process by creating chaos in the way that nerves transmit, receive, or process signals. Heroin and marijuana have the ability to trigger neurons because they have a structure similar to certain neurotransmitters. This similarity allows the drugs to attach to receptor sites and invoke a response. However, because these drugs are not exact replicas of neurotransmitters, neurons receive an abnormal message that in turn, transmits to and triggers abnormal messages along with the nervous system network.
The abnormal messages that amphetamines and cocaine cause trigger neurons to emit excessive quantities of neurotransmitters. These drugs also inhibit the natural reabsorption process, creating a continual transmission of the wrong message.
Drugs and the Limbic System
Drugs affect the brain by causing an excessive flow of dopamine. The neurotransmitter, dopamine plays a role in physical movement, the flow of emotions, level of motivation, and the feelings of pleasure or satisfaction. Overstimulating dopamine flow affects the limbic system by creating feelings of euphoria. These euphoric feelings encourage repeating the process that created the sensation which leads, in turn, to habitual drug abuse.
Limbic System Stimulation and Addiction
The brain stores information correlating a pleasurable response with a particular activity. Once the limbic system becomes stimulated, the brain perceives the event as memorable and creates a desire to repeat the activity that caused the response. Drugs may release two to 10 times the normal dopamine levels.
Not only is euphoria stronger than a typical satisfying reward, but the sensation also typically lasts much longer than the pleasure experienced by achieving an accomplishment or enjoying a delicious meal. The strength of this sensation encourages individuals to repeat the drug over and over again in attempts at recreating the euphoria.
Brain Activity and Habitual Drug Use
Over time, the brain recognizes the excess dopamine emissions as abnormal and makes an adjustment. Neurons make this transition by producing less dopamine, or by interfering with the number of receptors capable of receiving a transmission. Consequently, individuals do not obtain the same euphoric effect.
Scientists believe that this physiological factor creates the depression, lack of motivation, and flat effect that habitual users often experience. Users must now take the drug in order to achieve a feeling of normalcy by restoring dopamine levels. Obtaining a euphoric feeling requires taking increased increments of the drug.
Long-Term Brain Effects
The mechanisms that regulate dopamine levels and create tolerance also cause other alterations in brain functions. Neurons emit the neurotransmitter glutamate which regulates pleasure and learning. When levels of this chemical become imbalanced, individuals experience cognitive impairment. Continual drug abuse also affects the areas of the brain that store memory.
The brain equates the event with a favorable chemical response. When individuals expose themselves to any environmental factors associated with taking the drug, the brain remembers and creates a desire to repeat the event. This learned conditioning may cause cravings years after an abuser stops the habit.
The many ways that drugs affect chemical communication within the brain and cause addiction also contribute to an individual’s behavior. The overwhelming cravings to return brain chemicals to normal, or to experience feelings of euphoria, lead users toward dangerous and illegal actions in attempts at acquiring the drug.
Addiction and Withdrawal
While drugs cause an excess of certain neurotransmitters, they also inhibit the flow of others that include noradrenaline. When an individual stops taking a drug, the brain reacts by producing and releasing vast amounts of adrenaline, which leads to withdrawal symptoms.
Different drugs create varied symptoms and even symptoms may differ from one individual to the next. While most experience emotional symptoms, users may or may not suffer physical withdrawal. Depending on the type of drug addiction, abusers might also experience dangerous physical symptoms requiring medical intervention. The array of symptoms that individuals in drug withdrawal experience include:
- Need for social Isolation
- Inability to concentrate
- Muscle spasms or tension
- Muscle tremors
- Breathing difficulty
- Chest pain
- Increased pulse
- Heart palpitations
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
- Delirium tremens or DTs
- Heart attack
Some of these symptoms can not only be extremely dangerous, they can also become deadly.
Seek Help from an Inpatient Addiction Treatment Center
If you are struggling with drug addiction, seek help from an inpatient addiction treatment facility where you can go through a safe detoxification period. After detox, you can move on to receiving the treatment that you need and deserve. You can return to a life of sobriety and good health.