What Does Drug Abuse And Addiction Do To Your Brain?

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What Does Drug Abuse And Addiction Do To Your Brain
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Last Updated on July 27, 2022 by Randy Withers, LCMHC

In 2014, about 30 million Americans were classified as current illicit drug users, meaning they had used drugs in the month leading up to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health that year (NSDUH). 

Drugs work with the body and brain to change moods, emotions, and behaviors via altering brain chemistry and perceptions and influencing how people interact with the environment around them.

What Does Drug Abuse And Addiction Do To Your Brain
What Does Drug Abuse And Addiction Do To Your Brain?

Effects Of Drug Abuse On The Brain

The central nervous system and autonomic functions critical for survival, such as blood pressure, breathing, heart rate, and body temperature, may be slowed or sped up by mind-altering medications. 

Drug usage also affects the levels of certain of the brain’s chemical messengers or neurotransmitters. 

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that affects mood, pleasure, movement, reward and reinforcing behaviors, motivation, and attention.

Drugs that affect dopamine levels include marijuana, heroin, and other opioids, as well as stimulants, ecstasy, and PCP.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate emotions and stabilize moods. Drugs that affect serotonin levels include hallucinogens and ecstasy.

GABA serves as a natural sedative, reducing anxiety and decreasing the stress reaction while also slowing down central nervous system processes.

Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs that can affect GABA levels. Norepinephrine, like adrenaline, is known as the “stress hormone” because it causes the central nervous system to speed up in reaction to the “fight-or-flight” response. It also boosts energy levels while improving focus and attention.

Opioids and ecstasy are two drugs that might affect norepinephrine levels.


Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit substance in the United States, according to NIDA, and it is especially popular among teens and young people. 

Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (TCH), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, interacts and binds with cannabinoid receptors in the brain, giving a calming and relaxing effect. 

High concentrations of cannabinoid receptors in the brain have a significant influence. The hippocampus, for example, is in charge of short-term memory, thus marijuana usage can make it difficult to recall recent events.

The cerebellum and basal ganglia, which control coordination and involuntary muscular movements respectively, are also affected. 

Impaired motor abilities, mood swings, altered time and sensory perception, diminished memory, difficulty thinking effectively, and solving issues are all prevalent short-term adverse effects of marijuana consumption.

Marijuana also affects dopamine levels in the brain, resulting in the euphoric “high” that users describe. Marijuana also has a number of long-term impacts on the brain, which are more common in those who use it before their brains are fully matured.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Prescription opioids such as OxyContin, Vicodin, fentanyl, methadone, and Dilaudid attach to opioid receptors in the brain and cause dopamine release. 

These substances, in a manner, hijack the limbic system of the brain, creating a tremendous high that people often want to reproduce, leading to self-fulfilling actions. 

Opioid medicines are highly addictive, with ASAM reporting that over a quarter of heroin users will develop an opioid addiction. In 2015, about 2.5 million Americans struggled with opioid addiction. 

Heroin is the quickest-acting opioid, taking effect almost instantly and exceedingly addictive.

When someone takes an opioid medicine regularly, their body becomes accustomed to the drug’s interaction with the brain and develops a tolerance to it. Therefore, individuals may need to take more of the medicine to experience the intended results. 

When the opioid wears off, the brain will cease to function as before the drug was introduced, resulting in a drop in dopamine levels.

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Opioids also function as central nervous system depressants by disrupting the natural synthesis of norepinephrine. Opioids reduce body warmth, slow heart rate, blood pressure, breathing processes and inhibit pain perceptions. 

Opioid overdose is an all-too-common side effect of opioid misuse, and it can lead to life-threatening respiratory depression.

Cocaine, Methamphetamine, And Other Stimulants

Stimulant substances include cocaine, methamphetamine, and pharmaceutical amphetamines like Adderall and Ritalin, which treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

This means they increase heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure while raising energy levels, focus, attention, alertness, and wakefulness. They also make you eat less. Cocaine and methamphetamine, in particular, provide a powerful high by rapidly flooding the brain with dopamine.

However, because the high is usually short-lived, cocaine is frequently misused in a binge-like fashion to prolong the bliss. The “crash” that occurs following a stimulant high can be severe, leaving a person exhausted, hungry, irritated, intellectually confused, and sad, with powerful desires to follow. 

Because stimulant medicines affect dopamine levels and the limbic reward system, they are particularly addictive. 


Ecstasy, commonly known as Molly or MDMA, is a popular club drug and psychoactive substance. 

It has both stimulant and hallucinogenic characteristics because it binds to serotonin transporters in the brain. Ecstasy increases feelings of emotional connection and warmth while intensifying and distorting the senses, raising energy levels, lowering anxiety, and increasing pleasure. 

Ecstasy usage also raises the heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure. 

Ecstasy usage and overdose can cause hyperthermia, high blood pressure, panic attacks, faintness, involuntary teeth clenching, impaired vision, nausea, sweating, chills, arrhythmia, heart failure, kidney failure, dehydration, loss of consciousness, and seizures. 

Ecstasy is frequently coupled with alcohol, which can be dangerous.

If a person takes more MDMA while the drug is still in their system, it might mess with their metabolism, worsening the cardiovascular and toxic adverse effects. While most MDMA’s adverse effects fade away after a few hours, confusion and anxiety can remain for up to a week. 

MDMA interferes with how the brain processes information and maintains memories, and long-term use can exacerbate these cognitive difficulties. 

Regular ecstasy usage can cause anxiety, irritability, sleep problems, depression, anger, impulsivity, lack of appetite, and diminished interest in sex. Ecstasy can also be psychologically addicting, causing withdrawal symptoms if it isn’t used.

Drug Abuse and the Brain. Courtesy, YouTube,

Final Thoughts

When it comes to illicit substances, there is no such thing as a “safe” drug. All drugs affect the human brain and therefore all drugs have the potential to cause harm, especially if they are abused.

Many people think marijuana is harmless, but this is a naïve assumption. While many people can and do use marijuana with little consequence, it is important to keep in mind that it is a hallucinogen, which by definition alters a person’s brain chemistry. Anything that does that has the potential to cause harm.

If you think you may have a problem with drugs, I encourage you to get help. Whether it is through a community 12-Step Program like Narcotics Anonymous or a professional medical detox center, help is available in virtually every community nationwide.

Gallus Detox is a well-known drug rehab treatment center in The United States, and its approach to treating addiction is unique. For more information, visit their website: https://www.gallusdetox.com/locations/arizona/phoenix-detox-center/

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Randy Withers, LCMHC

Randy Withers, LCMHC is a Board-Certified and Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor at a private practice in North Carolina where he specializes in co-occurring disorders. He has masters degrees in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Lenoir-Rhyne University and Education from Florida State University, and is the managing editor of Blunt Therapy. He writes about mental health, therapy, and addictions. In his spare time, you can find him watching reruns of Star Trek: TNG with his dog. Connect with him on LinkedIn. You can also see what he writes about on Medium.

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