With opioids becoming more of a devastating, national epidemic, more people are probably wondering how drugs affect the brain. What is the effect of consistent use and abuse? How does your brain react to drug or alcohol use?
These are all critical questions worth a look.
This PSA of the 1980s was effective in that it made an impression in peoples’ minds. But it didn’t explain the inner workings of what actually happens to your brain when you take drugs. Because let’s be honest — an image of an egg frying in a pan isn’t exactly accurate. It’s a lot more complicated than a sizzling breakfast.
How the Brain Works, Without Drugs
Our brains contain billions of nerve cells. These cells are arranged in patterns that control all our functions — thoughts, feelings, actions, sensations, and movements.
In effect, a brain is the sum of its parts, each with a specific function, but every part works harmoniously to allow us to perform. This system of nerves is connected throughout our bodies, making communication to the brain fast and precise. This is why, when you touch a hot stove or step on a sharp object, your hand or foot leaps back immediately.
Brains are divided into four lobes: frontal, temporal, occipital, and parietal. Each handles a different function, whether that be sensory output or memory storage.
Below the brain is the cerebellum, which is comprised of tissues that coordinate movement. And below that is the brain stem, which connects our brain to the spinal cord. Again, this controls many life-giving functions.
The limbic system, a collection of structures deep within the brain, controls our emotions and memories and includes the hippocampus, the hypothalamus and the thalamus. The hippocampus stores and recalls memory. The hypothalamus controls emotion, body temperature and urges. The thalamus passes messages between the spinal cord and the cerebral hemispheres.
The nervous system — or all the nerves in our bodies outside the brain and spinal cord — is responsible for how the brain communicates to the different parts of our bodies via internal messaging. These messages get delivered by chemicals, called neurotransmitters, that act as messengers.
This system is lightning-fast and super-efficient, until drugs are introduced.
How Alcohol Damages the Brain
Alcohol is arguably one of the easiest drugs to access and to justify its ongoing use. However, alcohol consumption, especially in excess, has many damaging effects on brain function.
Some studies have stated that mild drinking — one drink a day for women, two for men — has few ill effects. But moderate to excessive drinking has quite a negative impact on our brains. In fact, a recent study showed that even moderate drinking could shrink areas of the brain responsible for cognition and learning.
The hippocampus, mentioned earlier, is associated with memory and reasoning. In the study, those who drank excessively for more than 30 years had severe hippocampus depletion.
This was mostly due to the amount that they drank. If participants had four or more drinks per day, their hippocampus shrunk to a size almost six times smaller than non-drinkers. Moderate drinkers had three times the risk of shrinkage.
While scientists can’t accurately determine whether this atrophy, or shrinkage, was due entirely to alcohol or just loss of cells with aging, something is interesting to note. Within weeks of not drinking, this atrophy showed significant improvements. If the atrophy was caused by “normal” brain cell death, this wouldn’t happen.
Alcohol has other harmful effects. It alters the neurotransmitters or messengers in our brains. With compromised neurotransmitter function comes slurred speech, blurry vision, and more, slowed reaction times — especially dangerous when operating a vehicle.
Slurred speech and physical imbalance are also attributed to the effect of alcohol on the cerebellum and cerebral cortex, which is diminished optimal use and inefficiency.
Long-term usage of alcohol only solidifies these effects, causing brain atrophy, memory loss, cognitive decline, and other health issues.
How Drugs Affect the Brain
Not only do drugs have a plethora of harmful effects, different drugs have very different effects. For example, the brain’s response to marijuana is much different than its response to cocaine or heroin.
There are many kinds of neurotransmitters in the brain, not just one. You’ve likely heard of many of them — dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, for example. Each neurotransmitter is responsible for something different, whether that be our pleasure and rewards system or our impulse control.
When someone uses drugs, these neurotransmitters are either enhanced or depleted. Certain drugs, like marijuana, mimic chemicals and actions that already occur within the brain. Although they’re similar, the signals are still different enough that they cause your brain to work harder to process any internal messages sent.
Other drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, have almost the opposite effect. They either under- or over-stimulate these neurotransmitters, causing either a huge release or an overwhelming lull. This disrupts any of the conversations we have going on between our brain and the nervous system.
The Issue of Addiction
Stimulation is, in part, why people become dependent on drugs. Consistent drug use leads to the tolerance, enjoyment, and more mind-altering effects. The more someone changes normal brain function, the more likely dependence will occur.
Say you’ve taken opioids over an extended period. Your brain has released excessive amounts of dopamine, the pleasure neuron, the entire time. If you abruptly stop taking the opioids, your brain will crave that dopamine release, reinforcing the need to use.
Drugs affect all parts of the brain — the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala (triggered by withdrawals), the limbic system, and more. They drastically affect our neurotransmitters, causing irregular messages to be sent throughout our nervous system. This affects how we walk, talk, and remember things, as well as our ability to develop and learn.
Once the brain adapts to consistent drug use, it becomes reliant and triggers dangerous and risky behaviors – all to support the intention to get more of the drug. This is why people who were once clean, kind, and compassionate are driven to steal money from family members or engage in other illegal activities. The addiction has taken over at this point and the individual has less and less control over their actions. They are fighting their own brains, trying to stop overwhelming urges. This is why it’s essential to treat addiction as a disease, not a choice.
Like any other medical condition, substance addiction requires treatment and professional help.
Reversing the Damage Done from Substance Abuse
Just as it takes time for damage to occur in the brain, it takes time to reverse the damage as well. However, the effort needed to remove the damage done and live clean and sober is worth it.
The Benefits of Sobriety from Alcohol
Once alcoholics refrain from drinking, brain atrophy begins to reverse. That’s one way in which being sober has positive effects on the brain. But there’s more.
Tests that began in the early 2000s prove that the brain has a considerable resurgence of cell development as a result of abstaining from alcohol. Since alcohol dependency slows neurogenesis, or brain development, sobriety has the opposite effect. The hippocampus, along with its reversal of atrophy, also sees new brain cell growth, though this doesn’t happen immediately.
The early stages of recovery often show cognitive decline from previous substance use, an effect which may persist for some time. However, the longer one remains sober, the more cognitive function improves. This is why it’s important to minimize stress in the beginning stages of treatment and recovery.
Physical exercise is another way to promote brain cell growth and why many treatment centers supplement sobriety with physical activity and organized nutrition.
Reversing Brain Damage from Drugs
Unfortunately, when it comes to drug use, reversing the damaging effects isn’t as simple as it is with alcohol. What can be done to restore health depends upon which types of drugs were used and the extent of use.
To understand this, let’s focus on a brain’s recovery from methamphetamine addiction.
Some damage is reversible while other damage is not. It’s also clear that any type of recovery whatsoever only begins after an extended period of abstinence from the drug. That’s why it’s not enough to focus on brain rehabilitation when a person is relapsing into use. What must always remain as the primary focal point is the cessation of drug use and the ability to remain drug-free.
Behavior modification therapies can go a long way in helping a person remove addictive ways of life. And although imbalance to one’s biochemistry and brain activity happen during addiction, in most cases, any dysfunction will start to repair itself in due time with abstinence from drugs. But from a physiological standpoint, there are more challenges.
If brain damage took place in an area where other brain cells compensated for what was offset from drug addiction, recovery may be possible, if not likely. However, if the damage occurred in an area of brain function that was more specialized, with less overlap, then full recovery can be hampered.
Long-term drug use:
- Affects our neurotransmitters, compromising brain-to-body communication
- Rewires the brain’s reward system
- Causes brain cell death
Once brain function is compromised, mental health suffers too. It’s common for those addicted to drugs or alcohol to already have or develop mental illness such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder.
Now You Know How Drugs Affect the Brain
Every drug affects the brain in some way, often with dire consequences – whether it is the alcohol we can legally purchase at local stores, or drugs like fentanyl or cocaine.
Knowing how drugs affect the brain is one way to understand how drugs affect us as people and as a society. Once we accept that addiction is the brain’s natural response to excessive drug use, we can eventually de-stigmatize it.
If you or a loved one need help for an alcohol or drug addiction, you’re not alone. At least 1 in 7 people suffer from some form of substance addiction. Sadly, only about 10 percent of those seek out the help they need.
Don’t continue to suffer in silence. You and your family deserve to experience a life well-lived, a life that is healthy, happy and drug-free.