Your Brain on Drugs Ep 1 – How Do They Work?
By Lauren Brande | Published 7/3/17
Welcome back to Let’s Talk Drugs, where we take a close look at drug research so we can all be armed with facts. Let’s Talk Drugs is presented by ProjectKnow.com (that’s project k-n-o-w dot com), a website dedicated to providing digestible explanations for the complex world of drug and alcohol abuse. If you or someone you care about is struggling with substance abuse, call to reach out to our dedicated treatment support specialists for help in starting the recovery journey.
My name is Lollie, and in this series I want to take on a topic that can seem intimidating: the brain. More specifically, how drugs affect the brain. I’m sure many of us have heard that drugs can damage the brain, but why is it so few of us have heard exactly how they cause damage? Well, it’s time for you to know. This series will explore all the crazy ways that drugs affect the brain, from the mysteries surrounding psychedelics to why opioids can kill you in an instant.
In order to fully understand drug effects, we need to have a basic understanding of how the brain works. For this first episode, I interviewed Dr. Scott Salomone, a resident in psychiatry with a passion for knowledge sharing. We’ll cover the basics of brain function and how drugs manipulate this system to produce their effects. Ready for the information your health class missed? Here we go…
You might remember the PSA: a woman, holding an egg and a frying pan. The egg is your brain, the pan is drugs. She slams the pan down onto the pan, it cracks open, yolk and eggy goop running all over the counter, dripping down onto the floor. “This is what happens to your brain,” she says. She holds up the goopy, dripping pan glittered with pieces of egg shell and says, “this is what your body goes through.” Dishes and glassware get shattered, for some reason a clock is smashed in there, all while she lists other things that drugs will inevitably destroy: your family, friends, money, job, and future. It closes with a simple, “any questions?” The implication is obvious: drug use will completely destroy your life. This message was not only memorable and potent, it was honestly pretty terrifying for kids all across America.
As a kid I worked through the elementary school DARE, or Drug Abuse Resistance Education, program. In fact, I got second place in my 5th grade anti-drug essay writing contest and lectured my parents on a daily basis about their cigarette smoking (and how it would undeniably lead to heroin use down the line). The way the DARE program, and ultimately the war on drugs, depicted drug use was both intimidating and wildly incorrect. Of course drug use can lead to addiction, but trying marijuana once isn’t the fast track to shooting heroin. In fact, for many addicts, addiction starts at the doctor’s office.
This image of a cracked egg leaking down a cast iron pan has stuck around because it is extremely memorable. Countless 90’s kids saw this smashed egg-brain coupled with the escalating war on drugs and found themselves believing a terrifying narrative that they would soon discover was not true.
In high school we begin to see our peers drinking and trying drugs, further glorified by movies and television shows. The terrifying picture painted by the DARE program begins to peel away and we start to see that drug use isn’t actually turning all kids into street-dwelling lowlifes. It even looks kind of fun, and we have no education beyond the simple “just say no” that gets drilled into our heads at an early age.
Why is alcohol dangerous? No idea.
Can marijuana cause permanent brain changes? Who knows.
Why shouldn’t we steal our parent’s painkillers? What’s the worst that could happen?
All you need to know is you should never ever do anything that seems fun because you WILL end up living on the street with no dreams and no food, only wanting drugs for the rest of your life.
The gap left in the wake of a failed war on drugs has yet to be filled by adequate and accurate drug education. The fact is that scare tactics have been proven not to work, but the counter narrative of drugs being entirely safe is also dangerous and just as inaccurate. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Drugs are not safe to abuse, but people who are going to try drugs will do it whether or not they have accurate safety information. The best we can do is arm them with the facts about drugs- an approach known as harm reduction.
The human brain develops well into our 20’s, which is a big reason the anti-drug movement has mainly targeted adolescents. If you abuse a drug before your brain is fully developed you could risk causing long-term damage that can change the way your brain works forever. The same applies for adults, but damage incurred after the brain is developed is less likely to cause permanent functional changes.1
One of the most important things to understand about drugs is how they produce their effects. The human brain is a seriously miraculous thing. Every single thing we experience in the world, from sensory input, to memories, to the ability to plan out actions and control movement, is determined by this squishy little sack of cells. Okay well, “little” isn’t the best description. It may only weigh 3 pounds, but every brain has around 50 billion independent nerve cells with over 100 trillion connections.2, 3 That’s 100,000,000,000,000, a number that’s almost impossible to grasp.
Drugs manipulate the functions of these billions of cells, or neurons, to produce feelings and sensations that are well beyond what we can naturally encounter in our day-to-day lives. Sometimes they even make us see and feel things that that aren’t there at all. Some drugs’ effects come from their ability to reduce our brain cell communication, which is a major part of what makes these drugs so dangerous. Others increase activity in the brain, which can affect heart rate, blood pressure, or even body temperature. Understanding why certain drugs or certain drug combinations are dangerous is a vital part of being safe.
Brain Chemicals Associated with Addiction
What Are Neurotransmitters and How Do They Work?
Don’t get too caught up on the names of these neurotransmitters, as we’ll be covering them in more detail later. The main thing we want you to take away from this is that natural brain chemicals called neurotransmitters are the key to brain function. These chemicals are the messaging system for neurons, and they can either cause an increase in brain activity or a decrease in brain activity, depending on the neurotransmitter being released.
Drugs hijack this system of brain communication, which is how they produce their effects.
- Some drugs pretend to be a neurotransmitter to influence signaling.
- Some drugs cause neurons to release unnaturally large amounts of neurotransmitters.
- Some drugs stop the releasing neuron from cleaning up extra neurotransmitter left in the gap between cells.
These three main methods of action ultimately result in changes in brain cell signals, which explains most of the effects that drugs have, from euphoric giddiness to stopped breathing and heartrate and, ultimately, death.
Basically, when you eat a delicious sandwich, you feel good. When you drink a cool glass of water on a hot summer day, you feel good. When you have sex… you get the idea. Drugs take this hard-wired survival system and hijack the signals, producing the reinforcing pleasure without being necessary for survival.
When you abuse a drug, the reward system is inappropriately activated, tricking your brain into thinking that you should repeat the behavior in order to survive. Most of these thoughts are not explicit, conscious thoughts, but your brain believes them nonetheless. This is where addiction begins.
Did you learn something new? Connect with us on Twitter at #LetsTalkDrugs! We want to hear your feedback so we can expand the conversation around drug use and abuse. In our next episode we’ll look at how specific drugs affect the brain, from what makes psychedelic drugs so weird to why opioids are killing thousands of people every year.
Tune in next Monday, and in the meantime, be sure to subscribe and share so your friends will know the facts. We’re available on
SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, Youtube, and most podcast listening apps, so there’s always a way to stay informed. Until next time, I’m Lollie and this has been Let’s Talk Drugs. ?
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- Winters, K. C. & Arria, A. (2011). Adolescent brain development and drugs. The Prevention Researcher, 18(2). 21-24.
- Abadinsky, H. (2011). Drug use and abuse: A comprehensive introduction, 8th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
- Kock, C., & Kuhl, P. (2013, June 14, 2013) Decoding ‘the Most Complex Object in the Universe’/Interviewer: I. Flatow. Science Friday, National Public Radio.
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