Why drugs cause brain damage

Susan Simpson, Staff Writer Modified: February 17, 2009 at 11:34 am •  Published: July 27, 2008
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Do you remember that television commercial that showed an egg cracked into a hot skillet with the message “This is your brain on drugs?” The egg represented a brain frying from drugs.

While drugs don’t literally turn grey matter sunny side up, they can lead to lasting brain damage and disease, while also scrambling a person’s ability to make good decisions and learn from mistakes.

Addiction is considered a brain disease because drugs, including alcohol, can change the brain’s structure and how it works. This can lead to even more compulsive and destructive behaviors.

But no one starts out with the goal of becomes an addict, right? They may try alcohol, enjoy the buzz and make it a habit. But over time, drinking or drug abuse become less pleasurable and continued use becomes necessary just for the abuser to feel “normal.”

Finally, abusers reach a point where they seek and take drugs despite the problems it is creating for themselves and their loved ones. The drugs have taken over their lives.

“Much of the public still does not consider addiction as a disease of the brain,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“This is not a moral weakness or weakness of character,” agreed University of Oklahoma professor Robert Nisbet. Like many other illnesses, addiction can be controlled or managed through medical treatment and behavioral changes.

Still, vulnerability to addiction varies from person to person. Some people are more prone because of their young age, genetics or mental disorders.

Research shows that the younger a person begins drug use, the more likely it will harm the developing brain. The prefrontal cortex of the brain — the part we use to make decisions and keep our emotions and desires under control — doesn’t stop developing until a person is in their early 20s.

How do drugs work in the brain?

Drugs are chemicals that interfere with the way nerve cells normally send, receive and process information.

Some drugs like marijuana and heroin mimic natural neurotransmitters. This fools receptors and allows the drug to lock onto and activate the nerve cells, leading to the transmission of abnormal messages. Other drugs like amphetamine and cocaine cause the nerve cells to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals.

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