Drugs and the Brain By Mike Piskel Glenbrook North Brain Studies instructor
Why do people take drugs (including alcohol)? Escape. Because of Stress. (to help relax) To reduce pain both physical and emotional (to feel better.) Curiosity. Recreation- excitement-energy. To be social/lose inhibitions/fit in. Addiction.
Imagine if every time someone took drugs or alcohol it felt like this?
Based on the reasons given and their real effects on the mind and body drugs must offer us something. In other words… they work! If they didn’t … they do in fact create at least a temporary change in how we feel and act.
So…How do drugs work? In order to understand how drugs work, you have to understand how neurons work. Brain Basics:The brain consists of many different types of cells; the cells involved in storing and processing information are called neurons. Neurons look a lot like trees and their form fits their function. Think about what trees do over their life, they grow new branches and roots. So do neurons.
The basic neuron Neurons communicate with each other throughout the brain and body by both electrical signals through the neuron and chemical messages between them.
Neurons are dynamic: they can change over time with experiences. Over time they grow to form networks of communications through their branches.
Neurons work together, and by signaling each other in networks, we learn to perceive our world. These networks create our perceptions, thoughts, and memories. Consider the brain then as a forest of specialized cells (neurons) with pathways (connections) through it that take us to different experiences.
Many of these networks are in parts of the brain that are specialized for different processing and perceptions Some parts of the brain send or receive messages from the body. (sensory and motor neurons) Some parts of the brain send and receive messages to other parts of the brain. Some parts of the brain are analytical while others create our moods and emotions. All of these connections require that the brain use chemical signals between the various neurons.
The way to understanding drugs effects on the brain is to understand the chemical messages being sent by Neurons. Do you know the name of the chemical messengers in the brain?
These chemical messages are called neurotransmitters. There are many types of neurotransmitters. They work on a lock and key model.
You may have heard of some of the types of neurotransmitters. Examples include: Endorphins: The body’s natural pain killers Serotonin: a calming/relaxing focusing neurotransmitter that is one of the most common in the brain. Dopamine: A reward neurotransmitter that causes parts of the brain to fire creating a sensation of excitability, energy, power. Substance P: signals pain in the brain. Nor epinephrine: (a chemical in adrenaline) causing hyper-vigilance and excitability.
All neurotransmitters have specific functions and roles in the brain. Science has identified over 100 different types of neurotransmitters but predict there may be many more.
So… how do neurotransmitters relate to the way drugs and alcohol work on our brains? They work one of 3 possible ways: #1 The drug can chemically resemble and work like the actual neurotransmitter. #2 The drug can stimulate neurons to release their neurotransmitters. #3 The drug can prevent the reuptake of neurotransmitters by the signaling neuron.
Example: Ecstasy Ecstasy aka: xtc, mdma, is a common drug used at raves. It works by blocking the reuptake of the neurotransmitter, serotonin, causing an increase in the amount of serotonin to signal other neurons in the brain to fire, changing their perceptions. The individual may then experience increased energy, euphoria, and the suppression of certain inhibitions in relating to other people. In other words, they get high.
So… if drugs and alcohol work like the actual neurotransmitters or work with the brain, why then can they be a bad choice for us? Your ideas?
As you indicated drugs and alcohol can be: illegal, addictive, change perception to the point of intoxication causing people to make poor decisions, they have serious side effects both physical and emotional, it should also be noted from a brain science perspective that they also can cause serious brain chemical imbalance issues..
When the brain chemistry becomes out of balance this can lead to mental/emotional disease and other brain disorders. These changes can become long lasting.
It is important to note that some drugs can actually provide benefits to certain individuals. Prescription drugs to individuals suffering from a physical or mental disorder. They are controlled, monitored and legal. Many carry with them side effects. Despite side effects, the benefits can outweigh the detriments of the drug. Examples include: antidepressants (SSRI), muscle relaxers, pain killers, medical marijuana
If drugs and alcohol work by imitating, or releasing more neurotransmitters; doesn’t that mean the brain must already have the ability to achieve feelings of relaxation, well being, energy and excitability on its own?
Obviously the answer is yes! Our brain has the potential to reward itself. This is how we are often motivated to do things that require effort. Many people already take advantage of this on some level. You can too.
What is it called when we do something without the use of drugs/alcohol that makes us feel good, happy, relaxed, excited, or content?
Natural Highs … are created by your own brain chemistry without the use of drugs or alcohol. work by the release of neurotransmitters under authentic experiences. are free of harmful side physical and mental effects. Can create positive addictions that benefit the overall well being of the individual. are legal in all 50 states.
Doing exciting things can release adrenaline and dopamine creating a controlled rush of energy and euphoria.)
Because we are complex social organisms we have evolved a brain that allows us to reward ourselves for doing things for others. When we help others our brain releases endorphins, and the neurotransmitter dopamine, these neurotransmitters hit a reward button in our brain.
Meditation releases stress by reducing/balancing stress hormones and releasing serotonin throughout the brain. Regular daily meditation can create tremendous feelings of well being, peace and tranquility that carry over into the rest of your day.
Regular strenuous exercise creates a complex natural high, releasing endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. This elevates energy, mood, endurance, and tremendous mind and body benefits.
College Study In a controlled study, college students who exercised regularly decreased their binge drinking by 30%. Those who meditated decreased their binge drinking by 30%. Those who both meditated and exercised regularly decreased their binge drinking by 60%. Why?
Hobbies/avocations let us escape the everyday stressors They keep us in the moment. They can be very rewarding. They can be exhilarating. Release dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline. Provide us with something to anticipate.
Other Natural Highs Travel Listening to music. Attending shows/concerts/movies. Performing music, plays. Writing & Reading Getting a massage Pets Being outdoors Falling in Love Celebrations/parties Performing/attending sporting events. Dancing Creating art. And many more.
So why don’t people just use natural highs instead of drugs and alcohol? Good Question! Natural highs require some effort, knowledge and commitment. Find something you want and like to do. Work at it, practice it, learn about it. And you will be able to …
Enjoy your brain and exploit its potential to bring you peace of mind, happiness, and physical well being for a lifetime.