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Your Brain On Drugs

Table of Contents

your brain on drugs

Reviewed by Clare Waismann, RAS / SUDCC
The brain is the body’s most complex organ, made up of interconnected parts that work together to provide the critical functions that make up your physical, mental, and emotional existence. Intricate networks and circuits are responsible for many tasks. Different areas of the brain perform different functions. Upsetting the delicate chemical balance of the brain can cause lasting, irreversible damage. That balance is what helps you perform at your best. Drugs can have a profound effect on brain function.

NIDA Calls Addiction “A Brain Disease”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has a publication called “Drugs, Brains, and Behavior – The Science of Addiction” According to Dr. Nora D. Volkow, NIDA’s director, “Drug addiction is a brain disease that can be treated.” Scientists have long been studying the principles of addiction, trying to figure out what causes some people to develop addictions, and what effect that use has on the body. NIDA said abuse and addiction to alcohol, nicotine, and drugs cost Americans more than half a trillion dollars each year, taking into account the combined medical, social, economic, and criminal impact. In addition, abuse of drugs and alcohol claims more than 100,000 American lives each year, the institute said.

How the Brain Reacts to Drugs

Drug use affects many parts of the brain, compromising your actions and movements. For example, drugs like marijuana and alcohol can cause you to become uncoordinated and clumsy. Some drugs can also affect your involuntary system, sometimes even causing your brain to respond to a situation that is not real. One example is the effects of cocaine, which tells your involuntary system to increase your heart rate as if you were exercising or stressed, even when you’re not. Unlike cocaine, prescription pain relievers can cause you to be sluggish and breathing to slow down.

The Neurological Effects of Addiction

Drugs change the brain’s structure and how it operates. NIDA documented some of the changes that take place in a brain on drugs. For example, impairment can affect the following processes:

  • Self-control
  • Judgment
  • Decision-making
  • Learning
  • Memory
  • Behavior control

According to NIDA, drugs can affect several parts of the brain. The brain stem controls basic functions like breathing and heart rate. The limbic system, or the brain’s reward center, is activated when drugs are present. The cerebral cortex processes information from the senses. This is how we see, feel, touch and taste. The frontal cortex provides our ability to think, make decisions and solve problems. Drugs can tap into the brain’s reward system, flooding it with dopamine. Over-stimulation creates the euphoria that many drug abusers seek. Surges in dopamine can train the brain to produce less dopamine over time and reduces the number of receptors available to receive and transmit signals. When the ability to experience pleasure is compromised, the user can feel lifeless and depressed. Many users take more drugs to feel normal and develop a tolerance over time, requiring even more.

Opiates and the Brain

Brain changes occur with chronic use of drugs, including alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, and opiate drugs. Long-term use of opiates, derived from the poppy plant, can cause the brain to rely on them to function normally. The Cleveland Clinic reports that scientists are now able to clone the genes that control the production of opiate receptors, which will make it easier for them to make opiate receptors and study how they affect nerve cells. The treatment of opiate addiction could benefit from this finding, according to the clinic. Rapid detox is a technique used in rapid detox that aims to cleanse the brain’s opiate receptors in addicted patients who sleep under light sedation.  Waismann Method in California reports a high degree of success with the medical procedure, paving the way for patients to detox quickly, safely, and comfortably.


The reason many consider drug addiction a brain disease is because drugs essentially take over all areas of brain functioning. This is especially true for opiate drugs which attach to the brain’s opiate receptors and cause a dopamine spike, impacting the pleasure and reward centers. As a result, a person suffering from addiction may appear very different than prior to their drug use.

Reviewed by Clare Waismann, Registered Addiction Specialist (RAS), Substance Use Disorder Certified Counselor (SUDCC), founder of Waismann Method® Advanced Treatment for Opiate Dependence
All topics for the Opiates.com blog are selected and written based on high standards of editorial quality, including cited sources. Articles are reviewed by Clare Waismann, RAS/SUDCC, and for accuracy, credibility, and relevancy to the audience. Clare Waismann is an authority and expert on opioid dependence, opioid use disorder, substance dependence, detoxification treatments, detox recovery, and other topics covered on Opiates.com. Some articles are additionally reviewed by one of Waismann Method’s specialists or third-party sources, depending on their field of expertise. For additional information and disclaimers regarding third-party sources and content for informational purposes only, please see our Terms of Service.

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