drugs and alcohol affects on the brain

Most people know that drugs and alcohol can affect the body over time. But many don’t realize how much these substances can affect the brain. Several physical and psychological effects can develop after frequent drug use. So how do drugs and alcohol affect the brain? There are a few pieces of information that are needed to fully answer this question: understanding how the brain works and how certain drugs can affect this organ. 

The brain is a very complex organ that is in charge of many of the body’s major functions. It is necessary for every single action in a person’s life. Talking, eating, driving a car, playing a sport, and singing are all possible because of the brain’s function. With this in mind, drugs can end up causing serious damage to a person’s brain and its functions. Certain drugs can end up causing permanent damage if their addiction is left untreated

How Does the Brain Work?

How-Do-Drugs-and-Alcohol-Affect-the-BrainHow do drugs and alcohol affect the brain? To answer this question, we must first understand how the brain functions on a daily basis. Billions of neurons (microscopic cells) make up the brain as we know it. These neurons are responsible for connecting with the different circuits in the body and the brain. Similar to traffic control, these neurons help switch and control information through the body. 

Throughout the process, neurons put out neurotransmitters that send messages to the other sections of the body. Drugs can end up disrupting this pattern and causing your brain to function poorly in this regard. Over time, drug abuse can end up causing problems with a person’s ability to experience pleasure and other functions. Certain drugs can actually cause permanent and severe damage to the brain and body. 

Understanding the Truth: How Do Drugs and Alcohol Affect the Brain? 

Drugs can have a negative effect on the brain’s functions and processes. Many drugs end up disrupting how the brain’s neurons receive, send and process neurotransmitter signals. Drugs like marijuana can grab hold of these neurons – while the drug may mimic the brain’s chemicals, the neurons won’t act in the same way. This can create an abnormal process between the different neurotransmitters and the body. 

More intense drugs like cocaine can result in neurons releasing excessive amounts of natural transmitters. This ends up causing interference in the normal communication between neurons. These drugs can also flood the brain with dopamine, the chemical responsible for pleasurable feelings. This can end up causing a need to relieve that same feeling – this is where addiction eventually stems from

Which Parts of the Brain are Affected by Drug/Substance Abuse?

Drug use disrupts and alters several different regions of the brain. All of these reasons are responsible for specific functions and feelings in a person’s body. So, when a person uses drugs and alcohol, the effects can be life-altering. Understanding how drugs and alcohol affect the brain is only part of a bigger picture. 

  • Basal Ganglia: This portion of the brain plays a vital role in the positive forms of pleasure/reward. This includes effects from eating, sex, and socializing with others. This area forms the brain’s “reward circuit”. Drugs can take over this circuit, which usually involves a euphoric high for the user. As time goes on, constant drug use can end up desensitizing this portion of the brain making it hard to enjoy anything else except the drug. 
  •  The Prefrontal Cortex: This section responsible for planning, solving problems, and making decisions in day-to-day life. Since this is one of the last drugs to fully mature, drug use can cause an imbalance in these circuits which can make a person’s addiction even more intense.
  • The Extended Amygdala: This area involves feelings of stress, anxiety, and unease. This area is associated with withdrawals, which end up encouraging more drug use as time goes on. This area also becomes more sensitive to drug use and can end up causing a shift from using for pleasure to using for pain/anxiety relief.

These are not the only parts of the brain that drugs can affect. Drugs like opioids can cause disruptions in the brain stem or other parts of the brain. The brain stem in particular is involved with breathing, sleeping, and heart rate. This explains why someone may have depressed breath or a worse consequence from a drug overdose.

The Role of Dopamine in Drug Abuse and Addiction 

When a person has a pleasurable experience such as eating or socializing, their body seeks to reinforce these feelings/actions. The brain is wired to repeat these activities as time goes on. The neurotransmitter dopamine is in charge of these feelings and the need for repetition. The way this works is the brain creates a burst of dopamine when a pleasant experience is taking place. This indicates that this interaction should be remembered.Parts-of-the-Brain-Affected-by-Drug-Abuse

This neural connection makes it easier for a person to repeat this action over and over without giving it much thought. This is what eventually leads a person down the road of addiction. Drugs can end up causing large surges in dopamine when used. This reinforces the need to use it through the pleasure, consumption, and external cues of the action. Over time a person may go to far lengths to repeat this pleasurable experience in the form of drug use. This can be at the expense of others or even themselves (health problems or social struggles).  

As time goes on, certain cues in a person’s daily life may be associated with the drug itself. This is because the person’s reward circuit has been changed to react to these signals. Oftentimes, when a person comes across these cues they will have severe cravings to use the drug. These signals and urges to use can last for a long time, even if a person is no longer using the drug. These cues can be considered triggers as well – for example, certain places or things may create an urge to use, even years after they’ve stopped using. 

The Difference Between Natural Rewards and Addictive Drugs

When comparing natural rewards to a drug’s rewards, it comes down to intensity. Drugs are much more impactful and end up changing the receptors in the brain. This begins to change how a person perceives natural rewards like eating or watching a great movie. 

This is the reason why many people struggling with drug abuse end up feeling hopeless and unmotivated to do anything. When a person becomes dependent on a drug, they have to use it just to feel a normal level of pleasure when doing regular activities. This is one of the reasons why breaking a drug use habit can be so complex and difficult.

The Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse and Addiction

After understanding how drugs and alcohol affect the brain, it’s important to spot the signs of drug abuse. There are several behavioral changes and physical changes a person will undergo when under the influence of drugs. When a drug changes a person’s way of thinking, they may go to far lengths to get more of a drug. Red flags will inevitably appear as a person’s dependence becomes stronger and stronger. Signs of drug addiction and abuse include the following: 

  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not using the drug
  • Worsened performance at work, school, and home life
  • Changes in social network and friend groups
  • Inability to do normal tasks and fulfill responsibilities
  • Feeling guilty and hiding drug use from close loved ones
  • Strange and inconsistent sleeping schedule
  • Continuing drug use even if it is causing problems or is not needed any more (medication)
  • Physical appearance changes such as bloodshot eyes, tremors or shakes, weight loss, bloody nose, etc.

These signs may indicate a potential drug addiction. It is important to speak to loved ones about their problem and seek further professional help. Facilities like North Jersey Recovery Center are ready to help a loved one overcome addiction with quality treatment. The longer a person waits, the worse the effects of addiction become. 

There are many different types of addiction treatment options available to you and your loved ones. While overcoming addiction is an intense journey, it is not only possible but achievable with the right guidance and support. Millions of people struggle with addiction, so it’s important to know a person is never alone in their struggles. 

Start the Journey at New Jersey Recovery Center

When asking how do drugs and alcohol affect the brain, it’s important to understand the effects drugs can have on a person’s life. Anyone can become addicted to a drug, no matter what age or ethnicity. With this in mind, it’s crucial to know when it’s time to get help. Often, those who are addicted fail to get the necessary treatment. Let North Jersey Recovery Center help you on your journey to a better life, free of drugs. Give us a call today to find out more about our treatment opportunities and addiction resources. 

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Laura Riley

Laura-Riley-Cropped-Profile-150x150Laura Riley, MA, LCADC, CCS is an Administrator with North Jersey Recovery Center.