How Drugs Work in the BrainA brain cell, or neuron, communicates with its neighbor by releasing chemicals into the spaces between each neuron. The chemical, known as a neurotransmitter, crosses the synaptic space and binds to special receptors on the receiving neuron. This binding action causes the receiving cell to undergo a change – the message is received.
Opiods and MarijuanaOpioids and marijuana work by introducing chemicals that mimic the effects of natural neurotransmitters. Opioids bind to opioid receptors to create changes in the brain cell. Marijuana binds to cannabinoid receptors. Marijuana and opioids contain ingredients that have a chemical structure similar to naturally occurring, or endogenous, neurotransmitters.This chemical similarity allows marijuana, heroin and other drugs to bind to the receptors but they do not activate the neurons in exactly the same way as endogenous neurotransmitters. This causes the transmission of abnormal messages through the brain’s messaging system.
Cocaine and AmphetaminesCocaine, amphetamines and other drugs cause neurons to overproduce certain neurotransmitters, flooding receptors with naturally occurring “feel good” chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin. This amplifies the effects of the neurotransmitter to overwhelm the consumer with feelings of bliss and euphoria. These drugs can also slow down the process that clears the excess neurotransmitters from the brain to prolong the effects of the drug.Cocaine affects a region of the midbrain, known as ventral tegmental area (VTA)1, which has nerve fibers that extend to the nucleus accumbens. Hallucinogens work primarily in the brain’s cortex, where the drugs activate 5-HT2A receptors (2ARs)2, normally triggered by serotonin.
Other Physiological Effects of DrugsDrugs can affect other body systems inside and outside the brain. Opioids can stiffen smooth muscles in the digestive tract, for example, to slow down function and cause constipation; they can also depress the respiratory center of the brain to slow breathing.Cocaine can constrict blood vessels that can lead to cardiovascular effects, including increased blood pressure and heart rate. At high doses or chronic use, these other physiological effects can lead to serious adverse events, including heart attack and respiratory arrest.Using drugs for a long time increases your risk for developing serious physiological effects from drugs. To avoid these potentially harmful effects, contact a rehabilitation professional.
- Gonzalez-Maeso, J. Hallucinogens recruit specific cortical 5-HT(2A) receptor-mediated signaling pathways to affect behavior. Neuron. (2007, February 1). Retrieved April 10, 2015, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17270739
- Steffensen SC. Cocaine disinhibits dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area via use-dependent blockade of GABA neuron voltage-sensitive sodium channels. European Journal of Neuroscience. (2008, November 28) Retrieved fromhttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19046384
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