By Mike Piskel
Glenbrook North Brain Studies instructor
Why do people take
drugs (including alcohol)?
Because of Stress. (to help relax)
To reduce pain both physical and emotional (to feel
To be social/lose inhibitions/fit in.
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
So…How do drugs work?
In order to understand how drugs work,
you have to understand how neurons
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
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
These networks create our perceptions, thoughts, and
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
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.
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,
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
So… how do neurotransmitters relate to
the way drugs and alcohol work on our
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.
Ecstasy aka: xtc, mdma, is a common drug used at
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?
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
It is important to note that some drugs can
actually provide benefits to certain
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
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
Natural Highs …
are created by your own brain chemistry without the
use of drugs or alcohol.
work by the release of neurotransmitters under
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
In a controlled study, college students who exercised
regularly decreased their binge drinking by 30%.
Those who meditated decreased their binge drinking by
Those who both meditated and exercised regularly
decreased their binge drinking by 60%.
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
Listening to music.
Performing music, plays.
Writing & Reading
Getting a massage
Falling in Love
And many more.
So why don’t people just use natural
highs instead of drugs and alcohol?
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.