There is a reason that substance use disorder reaches a point where a person cannot resist their cravings and cannot avoid their triggers. The way drugs and alcohol affect the brain after continued use changes the way neurons send and receive signals to stimulate behavior and emotions.
In short, understanding the way drugs and alcohol affect the brain is essential to understanding how substance abuse changes how the body functions.
The Science Behind Substance Use and Brain Function
Neurons in the brain are responsible for sending signals that produce emotion — they are the reason we feel pleasure, pain, sadness, excitement, and all other sensations. When drugs are ingested, whether they are inhaled, drank, or injected, communication between these neurons is altered.
Drugs will activate the neurons in a way that is different from their natural function. Because of this, neurotransmitters will send abnormal, unnatural signals throughout the brain to enhance emotions that could have been produced on their own. In a way, substances act as an imposter neurotransmitter by mimicking the natural shape of one that would activate a neuron to send a signal. The bottom line is, substances interrupt the natural communication between neurons in the brain.
The most common emotion released by substance use is the widely known neurotransmitter, dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for feelings of euphoria and pleasure, otherwise referred to as the emotions associated with a “high.” Most drugs are known to activate dopamine neurotransmitters to produce this feeling. However, continued drug use can damage the brain’s ability to produce dopamine on its own, leading to a dependence on these substances to create feelings of pleasure.
Dopamine is naturally programmed to release when the individual experiences something enjoyable. This often means natural human activities like sex, eating good food, and spending time with friends and family. When drugs come into the picture, dopamine will train itself to continue releasing in their presence, sending out surges of pleasure each time the drug is ingested.
Additionally, drugs lead the brain to produce much larger surges of dopamine unnaturally. This causes the brain to strongly associate these feelings of intense pleasure more with the drugs than the activities that naturally bring us joy. Because drugs have the ability to produce so much more dopamine than these activities, although unnaturally, they become increasingly addictive the longer they are used.
Long Term Drug Use and its Impact on Brain Function
While smoking marijuana one time or doing a single line of cocaine may not seem like a big deal, drug use always carries a risk of impairing brain function long term. For many, this “one-time” thought process becomes habitual until it is a pattern and drug use is unavoidable.
For some, one-time use can have lasting effects if the drug is laced with an even more dangerous substance or their body reacts in an unforeseen manner. Nevertheless, understanding the long term consequences of drug use on the brain can cause individuals to consider their futures before using substances.
Stimulants such as cocaine may have an effect on the brain that makes it age faster. Using these substances can result in the brain losing its grey matter at a quicker rate than others who are not using.
Additionally, stimulants can permanently destroy brain cells. The high amount of dopamine that cocaine releases upon ingestion damages specific neurons that may continue to interact with the drug, further damaging brain signaling. Methamphetamines can have the same effect, and while some receptors can heal, the damage to some cognitive functions can be lifelong.
Drugs can also lead to delusion. This causes the brain to produce hallucinations due to unnatural neuron communication. This can lead to insomnia, hyperactivity, and self-harm which can cause individuals to pick at their own skin until they bleed because they feel as though creatures are crawling underneath it. This scratching along with drug use can damage blood vessels that increase the risk of stroke which can cause permanent brain damage.
While these are just some of the more severe, negative effects using drugs can have on the brain, although you may not realize it, over time significant drug use can have effects on the brain that you may not even notice. As such, drug use should be avoided at all costs to avoid the risk of damaging the brain.