Your Brain on Drugs

January 25-31, 2016 is National Drug and Alcohol Facts week and is a great opportunity for adults to learn how to talk to their kids about drugs and for teens to learn the true dangers and risks that come with drugs. The best way to prevent teens from using or experimenting with drugs is to talk to them about the facts such as what drugs are made of, how they physically and chemically affect you, and the long-term risk of usage. Use the facts below to talk to your family and loved ones about the dangers of drugs. -All American Healthcare

It’s important to let your children make their own decisions and learn from their mistakes, but it’s more important as a parent that you communicate with your kids and instill a knowledge in them that will help them make the right decisions. Adolescents are at risk everyday of being exposed to negative influences and drug-related activities, so take action now, before it happens. Educate your children on the effects and dangers of drugs so they have a clear understanding of the risks involved.

Your Brain on Drugs

Your brain, just like the rest of your body, is full of chemicals that are used for communication. Without a proper functioning brain, you cannot have a properly functioning body. Drugs, at any level, create a chemical change in the body because drugs themselves are chemicals. Thanks to science, we can see the change in our brains caused by drug use and discover new ways to help recovering addicts and effectively respond to drug use.

Our brains are wired to reward us for healthy behaviors and activities and naturally produce “feel good” chemicals and neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. These are considered natural opioids. Opioid receptors in the brain help control automatic processes such as respiration, responses to outside stimuli, responses to pain or hunger, and even the understanding of action and reward. This part of our brain is considered the reward circuit. When it is kick-started, the brain realizes that something positive is happening and it stores that memory or moment.

Our brain teaches us to repeat these healthy actions without even thinking about it and rewards us with a sense of happiness and pleasure. Drugs can take over this system and create a false sense of happiness and chemically change our perspective of the environment around us. Drugs can act as natural chemicals in the brain to manipulate the process of communication. You can read more about this under Reward Circuit.

Two ways drugs work in the brain:

  1. Imitating the brain’s natural chemical messengers
  2. Overstimulating the “reward circuit” of the brain

Some drugs have a chemical structure that allows them to mimic the chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters, that naturally occur in our body. Marijuana and heroin are two examples of this. They are so similar to naturally occurring functions that they are able to fool our receptors; however, because they cannot work the same way as natural transmitters, firing neurons send abnormal messages throughout the brain which can cause further problems and damage to our brains and bodies.

Drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine can cause nerve cells to overstimulate; for example, they can cause neurotransmitters to release too much dopamine in the brain or prevent the normal recycling of dopamine. This can exaggerate messaged in the brain and cause confusion in communication channels. If dopamine-producing cells stop working in the brain, messaging between neurons breaks down. Drug abuse can create severe chemical imbalances in the body.

Reward Circuit

Your reward circuit responds to feelings of pleasure by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine. Drug abuse can take control of this system. When you receive an excessive amount of dopamine you experience a sense of euphoria. When this euphoria wears off, you look for that next rush of happiness and excitement. Users will begin to built a tolerance to the drug after repeated use because the neurons in your brain will begin to reduce the number of dopamine receptors, make less dopamine, or some neurons may even die. This lack of dopamine will make users feel lifeless and depressed, often leading them to  take higher doses or harder drugs.

Once you become addicted, you can no longer control your behavior and will constantly be looking for a “high.” Instead of feeling rewarded for good, healthy behavior, you brain now associated rewards with repeated drug use.

What is Addiction?

At its core, addiction is a chronic brain disease characterized by a lack of control over the use of a substance or certain behavior. Addiction is a disease that affects both the brain and behavior which causes users to compulsively seek out drugs regardless of potentially fatal consequences. For first time users, trying a drug is a personal choice. Repeated drug users experience a chemical imbalance in the brain that can change the way they think about and perceive risk vs. reward. They often make risky decisions over and over again, even if they are at risk of losing friends, family, shelter, work etc.

A person struggling with an addiction cannot move past it without help. It requires a significant change in lives, perceptions and character to recover. If someone could recover alone, it would not be an addiction.

Risk Vs. Caution

Is using drugs risky? Yes, in more ways than one. Have you noticed a trend in teens that use drugs? They tend to partake in risky or dangerous activities such as stealing money to buy drugs, driving under the influence, fighting, etc. But why? Do they not think about the short and long-term consequences like injury, jail time or possibly death? While they do consciously make their own decisions, research shows how drugs impact your brain and your ability to make risky choices.

In a recent study, researchers took pictures of the brains of two groups of teens playing a game. One group of teens had substance use or other behavioral problems while the second group did not. In the game, the each group would face a series of choices which would either be a cautious behavior or a risky one.

Each group began the game with $5.00. If you chose a cautious behavior, you would earn one cent. If you chose a risk behavior, you would either win five cents or lose ten cents. Risky decisions allowed you to win big or lose bigger. Additionally, the chances of winning declines over the course of the game, so if teens kept making risky choices, they would eventually lose all of their money.

Brain scans showed the amount of brain activity happening in each teen’s brain while they were making decisions and showed which parts of the brain were most active during the decision making process.

Results showed that teens without  substance use problems had more brain activity than the brains of teens with substance use. This result was consistent with both risky and cautious behaviors. Those without substance problems appeared to have “busier brains” when making decisions. This could help explain why substance-using teens tend to take more risks. They don’t think as much about the possible consequences.


Talk to your family today about the effects of drugs on your brain. Help them gain a deeper knowledge on the subject so they will think twice when facing the choice on their own.


Learn more about the risks of abusing drugs.

  • Learn how to recognize and respond to an opioid overdose.
  • Get help for substance abuse problems: 1-800-662-HELP.

Sources:, National Institute of Health, The Heroin Project

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