Any substance that we put into our bodies, be it food, drink, or drugs (prescription or otherwise) has an effect on our body, brain and our behaviour. Some have positive effects, others negative. In this post we will discuss how illicit (illegal) drugs have on our brains.
Illicit drugs are categorised as stimulants, depressants, or sedatives. They increase the activity of three brain chemicals:
- Dopamine—produces increased energy/activity and acts in the reward system to reinforce behaviors
- Norepinephrine—increases heart rate and blood pressure, which are particularly risky for people with heart and blood vessel problems
- Serotonin—affects mood, appetite, sleep, and other functions.
While all drugs effect your brain functions, the effect and change in mood, memory, and behaviour will depend on the drug and your usage. For example, cocaine is known to be a disinhibitor. That means it can interfere with the executive control function.
This area of the brain, known as the prefrontal cortex controls empathy, judgement, impulse control, and the ability to learn from mistakes. People who have an impaired executive control function may experience shifts in moods, difficulty in concentrating, disorganised, lack of forethought/pre-meditation.
MDMA (aka Ecstacy) users can be irritable, impulsive. aggressive, they can become anxious and depressed, suffer from poor memory and have trouble paying attention. MDMA can also impact the body’s ability to manage its internal temperature leading to a quick increase in body temperature and damage to other internal organs.
Over and above in changes in behaviour, research has shown that the use of drugs actually changes the physical structure of the brain. One such study into the use of psychedelics concluded:
“…we found that regular use of a psychedelic agent was associated with structural differences in the medial aspects of the frontal and parietal cortices. These differences were associated with prior drug exposure and with greater ST, a personality trait reflecting religiousness and spirituality. Given the cross-sectional nature of the present study, causation cannot be established. However, our data suggest that regular use of psychedelic drugs could potentially lead to changes in brain tissue. Neural changes in brain areas associated with attention, internal thought processes andthe sense of self could underlie previously described personality changes following long-term psychedelic use” (emphasis added).
Some of those structural changes included reducing blood flow to certain areas of the brain (see here). Reduced blood flow also impacts your behaviour and ability to function.
Now for some good news: you can reverse and/or manage the harm that drugs are doing to your brain, and therefore your behaviour. But, you need to stop taking them first. The next step is nutrition and counselling. Counselling can help you understand and address the issues that led to the need to use the drugs in the first place, and then help you address your drug use and change your negative behaviours to positive ones.
 Bouso, J. C., Palhano-Fontes, F., Rodríguez-Fornells, A., Ribeiro, S., Sanches, R., Crippa, J. A. S., … & Riba, J. (2015). Long-term use of psychedelic drugs is associated with differences in brain structure and personality in humans. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 25(4), 483-492.
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