It’s no secret that drugs have a significant effect on behavior and thought processes of those affected. We see it in our home towns, in both our young and old, and in many families and communities. But what exactly is the long-term effect of addiction to the brain? The explanation really is quite simple, and is much easier to prevent than to treat.
How a Healthy Brain Works
Let’s start by looking at the inner workings of the healthy brain. Every second of every minute, our nerves are sending messages to our brain and vice versa. Data is transferred from one neuron to another, with the help of a range of chemicals that the brain has produced. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters, and their sole purpose is to facilitate the transfer of information from one neuron to another.
Common neurotransmitters found in the brain include glutamate, GABA and dopamine. Glutamate is a major contributor to most brain functions, and is responsible for cognition, memory and learning. GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric Acid) works as an inhibitor of nerve function, creating a calming effect and easing anxious tension.
In a medical sense, it is sold as a natural calmant. Dopamine is the chemical commonly associated with motivation and reward. It is released in anticipation of a reward, and is the result of your brain recognising those things that cause you pleasure.
When Drugs Cause a Brain Response
The use of drugs has a certain impact on the way your brain produces the chemicals it uses for day-to-day emotional responses and interactions. Imagine that the drug or alcohol you are taking has the same effect as one of your brain’s regular chemicals. Your brain learns to respond to the drug in order to complete a certain action or reaction, and eventually will begin searching for the drug when it requires such a response.
The Post-Addiction Chemistry of the Brain
Let’s take this one step further, and soon the brain has begun to expect the drug to provide functions that have previously been provided by the naturally occurring chemicals in the brain. In terms of the main brain chemicals mentioned earlier, this can have quite a significant impact. For example, if the drug you are taking feels good, it interferes with the ‘motivation and reward’ system of the brain, and this causes the dopamine levels produced by the brain to increase.
Eventually, your brain will come to rely on the drug to trigger dopamine production, and will be unable to produce the feeling of reward on its own. This can be a major contributor to poor mental health and depression, leading to a downward spiral as you continue to need more and more drugs in order to gain that sense of reward. Other drugs affect the body’s production of glutamate, which regulates the release of dopamine, and Gaba, of which any alteration in its production can upset anxiety levels (either increase them or cause the user to take unsafe risks). An alteration in the production of GABA can also cause difficulty in learning new things, developing memory and concentration.
Despite common belief, a person with an addiction-affected brain does not instantly become ‘ok’ when they stop taking drugs or binge-drinking alcohol. It is a long process, and requires the brain to be ‘trained’ to overcome its learned triggers and return to normal function – so much so, that some never recover. The best way is to never start taking drugs in the first place, but in the absence of this option, it is important to beat the addiction as soon as possible, to avoid further damage to the brain.
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