How The Brain Works
The brain is the most complex and intricate organ in the body. It controls everything from breathing, speaking and eating to the most complicated movements humans are capable of performing. Most people don’t have to think about breathing before they actually take a breath, but how exactly does the brain function and carry out the most basic or complex actions?
The brain is broken up into six different regions (cerebrum, cerebellum, frontal lobe, temporal lobes, occipital lobe, parietal lobe, and the limbic system) all of which communicate via chemicals and neurotransmitters.
- The cerebrum is the largest and hardest working region and is composed of the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
- The cerebellum controls balance and coordination.
- The frontal lobe is located at the front of the head and is responsible for personality/behavior, creativity, attention, judgement, smell, physical reactions and coordination.
- The parietal lobe is located behind the frontal lobe and controls the sensory (touch and pain) and motor (movement) cortexes.
- Temporal lobes are located near the ears on both sides of the head near the temples. They control language, speech and hearing.
- The occipital lobe is located at the back of the head and is responsible for vision and facial expressions.
- The limbic system attaches to the spinal cord and allows the brain to communicate with the rest of the body. It is also in charge of managing basic life support, such as heart rate, respiration and blood pressure. The limbic system also contains the reward system of the brain, which regulates your responses to stimulus such as food, sex, etc. Once stimulated your brain releases dopamine which makes you feel rewarded/happy as a result.
How Drugs Trick Your Brain
Drugs, whether prescribed or illicit, imitate the the naturally occurring chemicals in the brain and trick the body into acting a certain way. Some drugs cause a relief from pain, while other may help with alleviating disruptive symptoms. All drugs work in different ways depending on their intended effects. There are several categories of drugs which affect your brain differently; they are: stimulants, depressants, opioids, cannabinoids, and hallucinogens. All of these have the ability to impair judgement, reasoning and behavior control as well as impairing memory, learning abilities, impulse control, and setting goals just to name a few.
- Depressants induce relaxation and slow down brain activity. Some side effects can include dizziness, confusion, slurred speech, lack of concentration, fever and depression.
- Stimulants increase dopamine levels in the brain, which produces a euphoric state as well as several side effects including, but not limited to higher heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure decreased appetite, and trouble sleeping.
- Opioids are mainly used for pain relief and utilize dopamine to control the brain to create a pain-free, euphoric state.
- Cannabinoids also produce a euphoric feeling and enhance a person’s sensory perception. Some side effects may include: irregular heartbeat, inability of focus on a task, and memory loss, cellular death, shrinking neurons, and DNA fragmentation.
- Hallucinogens cause the brain to have false sensations or visions. These drugs interfere with how the brain sends messages to the body and therefore cause hallucinations. Other common side effects are an inability to sleep, numbness, tremors, increased heart rate, increased body temperature, high blood pressure and/or paranoia.
Once taken, drugs begin to train your brain to want more of what it perceives as a good feeling. It does this by altering your brain chemistry. Each time a person takes a drug and the brain receives positive information from its pleasure center it learns that the drugs are a good thing, regardless of whether or not they actually are. As a result the brain releases more dopamine when it senses drugs in comparison to natural rewards that the body produces on its own.
At this point drugs have successfully hijacked and retrained the brain to continually crave more. The body gradually builds up a tolerance so more drugs are needed to achieve the same level of euphoria and a vicious cycle continues to escalate. After building up a tolerance and dependence on drugs the body is prevented from experiencing any pleasure without the drugs they have been taking due to low dopamine levels being released in comparison to when they are on drugs. A major side effect other than those listed above is a feeling of lifelessness. Many have reported feeling lifeless while experiencing things that used to bring them joy.
Multiple Drug Abuse
Polydrug abuse, or the abuse of more than one substance is extremely dangerous. Using multiple drugs compounds the risks for the user. Instead of experiencing side effects from one drug they can experience side effects from many at once. The rate of addiction increases and the risk of overdose is significantly higher. The risk of death is much higher than if taking one drug.
Reversing The Damage
Taking steps to end drug abuse is challenging both physically and mentally. While drugs hijack the brain and alter brain chemistry there is hope for those struggling with addiction. After the body goes through withdrawals the brain begins to readjust itself and return to pre-drug normalcy for example the brain is capable of regenerating cells over that were destroyed. While some effects the drug cause may be permanent there are many that will disappear with sobriety depending on the intensity of drug abuse and how the body reacts.
In order to reverse the damage inflicted by drugs the body must go through two steps to begin the recovery process.
- The changes the drugs made on the brain’s chemistry and structure that compel drug use to continue need to be reversed.
- Restore cognitive function that has been lost or damaged.
- As drugs change the chemistry of the brain they affect the shape of dopamine receptors and make them harder to read. They need to change back to their original shape before drug abuse.
Once the drugs are out of the system the body immediately begins to try to find a new normal and reset itself. While the brain is working to do this there are many ways in which a person can cope mentally. Therapy or a facility specializing in rehabilitation are great resources as well as a medical professional, especially for withdrawal periods. The absolutely most important step to take in a person’s recovery is removing oneself from any and all exposure to the drugs a person was addicted to. Medical support may be necessary as well depending on the severity of the drug abuse.
According to recent studies on drug abuse in 2016 28.6 million people aged 12 and over used illicit drugs in the past month in the United States alone. That is over 10% of the American population. In the 18-25 age group over 25% used illicit drugs in the past month. Of those people only 1.4% received any sort of treatment. Those numbers are staggering and unbelievably concerning. Knowledge can be a powerful motivator to never use drugs or to cease using them altogether. Knowing just how drugs can hijack your brain could be a matter of life and death. There is hope for the almost 30 million people in the USA and more worldwide engaging in illicit drug use. Encourage others to seek medical and/or psychological help in dealing with their addictions to keep as many people healthy as is possible. Check local facilities’ websites for more information and how to receive help.