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How Are Brain Neurotransmitters Affected By Substance Abuse?

Our brains work in truly magnificent ways. The brain literally controls every aspect of our lives. Without proper brain function, we would not be able to perform even the most basic task. Due to the fact that the brain is so complex, even the slightest of changes can completely alter the chemical makeup. Everything we do can affect how our brains react and perform. This is especially true when it comes to the consumption of drugs and alcohol. Drugs and alcohol can change the way that neurotransmitters work in the brain, which changes the user’s emotions and, ultimately, the way they think and behave.

In this blog, we will take a look at what exactly neurotransmitters are as well as answer the question of “how do drugs affect neurotransmitters?”

How Does the Brain Work?

Before we can get into how drugs work on the brain, it’s important to have an understanding of how the brain works as a whole. 

The brain is like a very complex and powerful computer, controlling every aspect of the body. Instead of electrical circuits on the silicon chips that control our electronic devices though, the brain consists of billions of cells, called neurons, which are organized into circuits and networks. 

Each of these neurons acts as a type of switch, controlling how information is processed and sent out. If a certain neuron receives a strong enough signal from other neurons it’s connected to, it will fire off and send its own signal to those other neurons. 

Different brain circuits are responsible for coordinating and performing specific functions. Networks of neurons send signals back and forth to each other and among different parts of the brain, the spinal cord, and nerves in the rest of the body. 

how do drugs affect neurotransmitters

What Is A Neurotransmitter?

When a neuron wants to send a message, it releases something called a neurotransmitter into the gap between it and the next cell. The neurotransmitter crosses the synapse and attaches to receptors on the receiving neuron, like a key into a lock. This causes changes in the receiving cell. Neurotransmitters are what signals the brain to do certain things such as producing feelings like anger, joy, anxiety, and cravings. 

How Do Drugs and Alcohol Affect the Brain and the Neurotransmitters?

As we mentioned earlier, due to the overall complexity of the brain, even the slightest change can greatly alter the way it functions. When a person takes drugs or drinks a lot of alcohol, it can interfere with the way that neurons send, receive, and process signals that are sent by the neurotransmitters. 

Some drugs can actually activate neurons because of the chemical structure and makeup of the drug. They will attach to the neurons and actually help activate them. While those types of drugs might mimic the natural chemicals of the brain, they don’t activate neurons in the same way as the brain would do so naturally, which can lead to abnormal brain activity.

Other types of drugs can cause neurons to release large amounts of natural neurotransmitters. They can even prevent the normal recycling of brain chemicals by interfering with the transporters. This can cause a disruption when it comes to the communication between neurons.

Are There Specific Parts of the Brain That Are Affected By Substance Abuse?

While the entire chemical makeup of the brain can change as a result of prolonged substance abuse, there are three main areas of the brain that can be particularly affected by substance abuse more than others.

Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that controls the ability to think, problem-solve, make decisions, plan, and have self-control. When someone has a substance abuse disorder, it can reduce their ability to control their impulses, making it “easier” to continue abusing substances. The prefrontal cortex is also the last part of the brain to mature, making teens and young adults more susceptible than others.

Basal Ganglia

The basal ganglia is the part of the brain that produces pleasure and creates motivation. It also is involved in the formation of habits and routines. These areas form a key node of what is sometimes called the brain’s “reward circuit.” When drugs are put into the body, it can cause this circuit to over-activate. This is what produces the euphoria that comes with being high. Over time though, the circuit adapts to the substances that are constantly being put into it, thus developing a higher tolerance which causes dependence and addiction.

how do drugs affect neurotransmitters

Extended Amygdala

This part of the brain plays an active role in producing feelings of anxiety, irritability, unease, and other types of stress. This is the part of the brain that is affected once the drugs start to wear off and withdrawal symptoms begin to set in. Over time, this part of the brain will become more and more sensitive, resulting in the person needing to take more and more of the substances of abuse in order to get temporary relief from the discomfort. 

In addition to these parts of the brain, some drugs can also disrupt other parts of the brain, such as the brain stem. This disruption is what can lead to serious medical complications and even overdoses. 

What Types of Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters More Than Others?

Certain substances affect certain parts of the brain, and their neurotransmitters are different from others. This is based largely on the effects that the drug produces and what part of the brain it pertains to. Here are some of the more common substances of abuse and the neurotransmitter they largely affect:

Serotonin Inhibitory Neurotransmitter

This neurotransmitter works as a mood stabilizer and impacts mood, sexual desire, sleep, and appetite. The drugs that affect this neurotransmitter are:

Glutamate Excitatory Transmitter

Glutamate, also known as the major excitatory neurotransmitter, increases neuron activity and is involved in learning, memory, and cognitive functions. The drugs that most commonly affect this neurotransmitter are:

  • PCP
  • Alcohol
  • Ketamine

Gamma-aminobutyric Acid Inhibitory Neurotransmitter

Also known as GABA, this neurotransmitter lowers stress levels and decreases feelings of anxiety by slowing down the blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature. The substances that affect this neurotransmitter are:

  • Sedatives
  • Tranquilizers
  • Benzos
  • Alcohol

Norepinephrinean Excitatory Neurotransmitter

This neurotransmitter acts in a similar manner to adrenaline. It activates the sensations and feelings in the body most associated with adrenaline such as raised blood pressure, accelerated heart rate, and an increase in body temperature. It can also affect anxiety levels, sleep, appetite, and sensory processing abilities. This neurotransmitter is most commonly affected by:

  • ADHD medications such as Adderall and Ritalin
  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamines
  • Meth

Endogenous Cannabinoids Non-standard Neurotransmitter

This neurotransmitter interacts with the CB1 cannabinoid receptors in the brain, which impact memory, movement, and cognitive functions. Marijuana and synthetic cannabis such as spice are the two things that affect this neurotransmitter the most.

how do drugs affect neurotransmitters

Are Neurotransmitter Problems Related to Addiction Treatable?

The good news is that while lengthy and hard, most ailments associated with substance abuse can be treated over time with the proper treatment methods.

The first step in the treatment process is to detox off of any and all harmful substances. Detoxing should be done under constant medical care and supervision at either a hospital or medical facility, a dedicated detox center, or a treatment center that also offers detox services such as CNV Detox. Attempting to detox on your own can be incredibly dangerous and even potentially life-threatening.

Once detox has been completed then treatment can begin. Your treatment professional will recommend you enter into either an inpatient or outpatient rehab program based on which option is best for you and your condition. 

Behavioral therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have been proven to be the most effective when it comes to restoring brain function and connectivity. CBT improves self-reliance and enhances self-esteem while teaching effective coping mechanisms and measures for preventing relapse when confronted with potential triggers. It can also help teach you healthy ways to enhance pleasure and occupy the mind without the need for illicit substances such as drugs or alcohol.

How Do Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters are a very sensitive part of the brain. Even the slightest change in the chemical makeup of the brain can play a significant role in how the brain operates. Prolonged use of drugs and alcohol can change the entire chemical makeup of the brain, including how the neurotransmitters function.

Contact CNV Detox for Help Today

If you or someone you know is suffering from a substance abuse disorder, it’s important to get the help you need before it’s too late. At CNV Detox, we know how important it is to live a healthy and sober life. That’s why in addition to offering detox programs, we also offer treatment programs for a variety of addictions and disorders. Contact us today to learn more about the services we provide and how we can get you on the road to recovery.

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