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This Is Your Brain on Drugs - Literally

By WebMD Connect to Care Staff
Medically Reviewed by Fritz L. Hershey, PsyD, MFT on February 03, 2021
Here is the truth about how drugs affect the brain.

In 2018, more than 53 million people ages 12 or older in the United States took illegal drugs or misused prescription meds in the past year, according to a report by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You may know some of the ways that drug abuse can damage your body. But what price could your brain pay? Here’s what you need to know.

How Drugs Affect Your Brain

Depending on the type of drug you take, its chemicals can affect your brain and body in different ways. Here a few common types of drugs: 

Stimulants make you more alert and energetic by boosting certain brain chemicals. 

Depressants calm by changing chemical signaling.

Opioids reduce severe pain. “These drugs bind to very specific sites in the human brain, called opiate receptors, and lead to changes in nerve signals and decrease the experience of pain, among many other effects,” Harshal Kirane, MD, the medical director of Wellbridge Addiction Treatment and Research, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

Many people struggle with drug addiction due to the high, or pleasure, it gives them. A chemical that your brain makes, called dopamine, plays a key role in fueling your desire to repeat the feel-good act of getting high, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Taking a drug and getting high can lead your brain to release a large burst of dopamine, which primes you to feel like something important and memorable is going on. The dopamine surge can also affect your brain cells in a way that makes it simpler to mindlessly repeat the enjoyable activity.

If you repeatedly abuse a drug, over time you need to take more of it to get the same pleasurable effects. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says your brain starts to make fewer rewarding brain chemicals, or reduces the number of areas on brain cells that can receive signals from those chemicals. When that happens, you get less pleasure from the drug and from other activities you used to find rewarding.

“What you see with a drug like cocaine or any drug, you have biological, cognitive, and behavioral effects,” says Patrick Bordnick, PhD, the dean of the Tulane University School of Social Work, who’s done research on several types of drug addiction. “Drug use is paired with not only using the drug and seeing the drug, but also with things in the environment: social interactions, sights, sounds, and smell.” 

Don't Wait. Get Help Now.

Since it’s possible for your brain to associate a drug with many people, places, or things, it’s crucial for you to get medical help for drug abuse. Treatments can help you get sober, avoid your triggers, and embrace healthy habits. Bordnick says that an effective treatment plan also examines your daily life, which can include your job, family, and environment.

“It's a combined form of treatment that I believe is most effective,” Bordnick says.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help. 

Treatment & Resources: General Information