The effect of drugs on your brain [VIDEO]

The Big Question:

Why are some drugs illegal and some aren’t? What makes them so bad? Why does it matter if it’s prescribed or not? Okay, yes, that’s three questions, but the answers are many:

Defining Drugs

The basis behind any drug is to change the way a person feels. There are two definitions for the term drugs that will apply to this post:

A chemical substance used in the treatment, cure, prevention, or diagnosis of disease or used to otherwise enhance physical or mental well-being.


And the second:

A drug is a substance which may have medicinal, intoxicating, performance enhancing or other effects when taken or put into a human body or the body of another animal and is not considered a food or exclusively a food.


The term has multiple definitions, but we tend to call drugs in the sense medicine. Thus, the term drug becomes associated with the bad, illegal kind. For our purposes, we’ll specify the difference by using the terms illegal or legal drug. As we’ll see, drugs don’t have to be illegal to be addictive.

Who Decides Drugs are Legal or Illegal

Illegal drugs are generally made illegal by governments that try to keep mind-altering, dangerous and addictive substances out of the hands of the public. This is to protect other people from the actions of those under-the-influence, as well as promote health and discourage abusing drugs.

Most medicines work by the chemicals in the drug binding to proteins in our bodies to change how those proteins work. These generally produce effects that are meant to help with diseases or infirmities. To be legal, they have to be approved after years of testing by a government authority before they’re allowed into the public. In the United States, it’s the FDA: US Food and Drug Administration. You can read about the development and approval process on their website.

How Drugs Work

To understand how drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, or heroin work requires knowing a little about the brain. There are three areas of the brain affected by drug use and abuse: the brain stem, which the most basic parts of life like breathing and heart rate; the limbic system, which links the parts of our brain that feel pleasure; and the cerebral cortex, which processes information from our senses and allows us to think and make decisions.

Allan Ajifo
Allan Ajifo

Our brains are always sending messages from one part to different parts to communicate. This communication is done by releasing a chemical (called a neurotransmitter) into the brain. The empty space between two cells is called a synapse. The neurotransmitter goes across the synapse and attaches to receptors on the other cell, which communicates the message sent from the first cell.

When you abuse illegal drugs, they mess with the sending and receiving of those messages. Most of these drugs also mess with your pleasure-system by flooding your receptors with dopamine (the chemical that allows us to feel pleasure).

The intense rush of dopamine that makes a drug user feel euphoric is called a high–and since we’re wired to repeat behaviors that make us feel good (i.e., behaviors that are required for survival like eating and sexual behaviors), these drugs usually become highly addictive behaviors. Our brains realize that they were overloaded and cope in different ways: one is to reduce the number of receptors. This makes it so a user has to use more and more to receive the same high–also called the “tolerance level.”

In simpler terms: your brain gets a hit of a chemical that floods your receptors with dopamine. You feel uh-mazing. Your brain goes “WOAH! we’re not supposed to work that way! Something must be wrong with me!” It can’t control what comes into the body, so instead, it’s changes how that chemical is received by lowering the amount of receptors. That affects the amount of the drug you need to feel the same high.

It also means that things that make non-drug users feel happy, like a particularly delicious meal or satisfying workout, won’t be as happy for drug-abusers. It takes much more to make a drug abuser feel the same levels of happiness they used to from normal life before they became addicted. This is a reason drug abusers feel the need to continue their drug use: nothing else makes them feel good.

Drugs have worse effects than just dulling your ability to be happy; they also affect the outer parts of your brain and change behavior and hard-wire your brain to become addicted. Brain activity in drug abusers is much less than normal brains, even long after drug use stops.

Besides affecting the chemistry of your brain, drugs affect every aspect of your life: your job, family, ability to make money–not to mention the many risks associated with overdosing.  Watch this video by FilmBilder for a profound illustration of drugs’ downward spiral.

Why Addictions Are Bad

You always hear about avoiding drugs and becoming addicted to these kinds of substances. But why? From what you’ve learned, it makes you feel good. Why is feeling good bad? The easy answer is control, or rather, the loss of it. When you’re addicted to something, you become its slave. Your ability to choose it taken away, and you can’t do anything but chase the high that gets harder and harder to reach.

It’s also important not to fall into the glamour of addictive substances that can sometimes be portrayed in the movies or other media. With every glamorous appearance of an addictive substance comes a tragic, unseen struggle that can have devastating consequences.

Avoiding Addictions


Josué Goge

Firstly, only use medicines as prescribed or needed. Other drugs, like alcohol and nicotine are legal but cause many problems when overused. When it comes to these, it’s important to pay attention to your body and know its limits. Secondly, just stay away from illegal substances. Because they’re not regulated by a government, they can contain random chemicals and materials that can hurt you quite a bit.

Safe Practices

If you’re of the legal drinking age and choose to partake, be sure to never drink anything you didn’t see poured by the bartender and hasn’t left your sight. Always know what is in the drink.  For tips on the responsible use of prescription drugs, check out the Substance Abuse Administration’s helpful graphic here.


…that there are plenty of people who get through life completely fulfilled without abusing legal or illegal drugs. If you have slipped into a pattern of abusing drugs, there are many resources that can help you make the choice today to turn your life around.

Go here for sources and more information.

Photo Credit:

Klesta ▲ (Featured Image)

Allan Ajifo

Josué Goge

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