This Is Your Brain on Drugs

brain damage caused by drug useThe war on drugs has been punctuated with public service announcements, catchy tag lines, and other marketing-style campaigns to educate the public about the dangers of illicit drug use. Perhaps one of the most memorable ad campaigns featured an egg in a frying pan and the line, “this is your brain on drugs.” And who can forget a certain first lady’s famous stance, “just say no.” If only it were that easy. Then, Americans wouldn’t annually spend billions of dollars developing dangerous addictions. The cost of the residual effects of drug abuse, crime and long term health issues, cannot even be accurately calculated.

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Advertising slogans stick in your brain even when the message is ignored. The tag lines are cute and clever, but they don’t begin to address the severity of the problem.

Here are some popular anti-drug slogans you may remember:

  • This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs.
  • Just say no.
  • A mind is a terrible thing to waste.
  • Hugs not drugs.

Perhaps one of the most serious effects of drug abuse is brain damage. It’s easy to see that certain drugs, especially hallucinogens, affect the brain. People act erratically when they are under the influence of drugs. But, many make the assumption that when the high is over, the brain has gone back to normal. Can drugs damage the brain? Yes. In fact, the effects of drug abuse on the brain can be permanent.

Drug Abuse and the Brain

Some drugs affect the neurological system by increasing the feel-good chemicals in the brain. Who doesn’t want to feel good, or even better? It seems simple, take the drugs when you want to feel really good and get a wave of good feelings – a high. No harm done, right?  The drugs wear off, the feeling goes away, and you’re back to “normal”.

The Problem With Drug Induced Good Feelings

The problem with this system is that it causes permanent changes to occur in the brain. Your brain gets used to the flood of chemicals it gets from the drugs and attempts to regulate the rush. The parts of your brain that feel these chemicals are called receptors. When the brain is overwhelmed with feel-good chemicals, it reduces the number of receptors available to take in those good feelings.

feel-good-without-drugsAt the same time, your brain gets used to having the extra feel-good chemicals in your system. It creates a new normal, so it won’t be overwhelmed. The first dose you take gets you high. The next dose doesn’t get you quite as high because your brain is getting used to the chemicals and is not as severely affected by them. When this happens, you just take a bigger dose. The more drugs you put into your system, the more your brain adjusts and reduces receptors. Eventually, your brain doesn’t have enough receptors to feel good with just the normal amount of chemicals. You have to take more and more drugs to feel the same effect.

When a person is unable to feel good without the use of drugs, it’s a serious problem. In addition to potentially developing a drug addiction to try and reach euphoria, it can lead to depression and other mental illnesses. Damage to the brain’s pleasure centers can have life-long ramifications, not to mention the irony of having a reduced capacity to feel pleasure because you’re taking drugs to seek pleasure.

Neurological Effects of Drugs

The brain is not the only organ affected by drug abuse, of course. The heart, liver, kidneys, and other vital organs can be affected and even permanently damaged. Although the brain is the most complex organ in the body, it’s attached to the nervous system. Together, the brain and the nervous system control your body. They take in information from the environment and adjust the body systems accordingly. When you’re cold, you get goose-bumps; when you’re scared, your heart beats faster. The brain and nervous system manage it all.

When the nervous system is damaged or interrupted by substance abuse, it does not function properly. This can occur quickly with a dose larger than your body can handle, or it can happen over time with constant doses eroding the system. When it comes to illicit drugs, there is no predicting how an individual will react or when the effects will become severe.


When you experience any one of these medical conditions, your life is in great danger. It’s possible to recover from these, but the physical damage could be lasting. Whether it takes one dose or years of substance abuse to produce these conditions, they are warning signs that cannot go unrecognized. Once the immediate crisis is over, if the addiction is not treated, the outcome will likely be poor.

Drug Abuse and the Brain: What’s the Big Deal?

Brain function is where your personality is created. By altering the way the brain functions, or diminishing its capacity, you are altering the personality. If someone you love continues abusing drugs, changes that occur in the brain will change who that person is. It’s personality that attracts us to other people, and their personality is what we like, or don’t like, about them. It’s who they are. If you like someone now, when the drugs change their personality, you probably won’t like them. The chances of getting the original personality back while they are still abusing drugs are zero.

Drugs That Affect the Brain

Conventional wisdom used to say that once you kill a brain cell, you’re out of luck. Kill off too many, and you will be unable to function. But since the average person doesn’t begin to use all of his brain cells, it seemed likely there would be plenty of extras. No one, however, was able to figure out exactly how many reserve cells existed; were there hundreds or thousands? So, killing brain cells was a bit of a risk. How many was too many?

Current medical science tells us that brain cells are able to regenerate, but the question remains: how does that happen, and can they keep up with the rate at which drug abuse kills them? We still don’t have exact numbers on how many reserve cells there are, how many are killed off with each high, and if the brain can regrow them as fast as the average addict can destroy them. So, the death of brain cells is still a pretty serious side effect of drug use.


Drugs and the Brain: Kill All the Brain Cells You Want; We’ll Make More

The fact that the adult brain continues to grow new cells is a good thing for an otherwise healthy brain. When brain cells grow, they create new pathways for thoughts. In essence, this is how people change, develop new thought patterns, and process their experiences into a new world view. New cells grow in a different direction or in slightly different form from the old ones. As the brain continues to develop, the thought process is altered. For most healthy adults, this is progress.

If your brain is polluted by drugs, the regrowth of brain cells could actually be a negative change. Cells will grow and adapt to their environment. If your brain is altered by the presence of a foreign substance, this will affect how those new cells grow, what direction they take, and how they reshape your thought processes. Dead brain cells do not necessarily regenerate in the same form. Adaptive brain cells may create permanent brain damage, as drug-affected thought processes become a permanent part of the new brain matter.

Drugs and Brain Cells: Worst Case Scenario

alcohol is a dangerous drug

There is a lot of speculation about which drug causes the most brain damage. Perhaps topping the list is combining drugs and alcohol. Because it’s more socially acceptable, many people don’t think of alcohol when they think of drugs. Alcohol, however, is every bit as dangerous as any other drug when it’s misused or abused. Alcohol abuse kills brain cells and can result in stroke, seizures, headache, coma and even death.

Alcohol & Illicit Drugs Together

Alcohol and illicit drugs seem to hang out together. It could be that alcohol reduces inhibitions and increases risk-taking behavior, which encourages drinkers to try other substances. Perhaps some illicit drug users like to hide their high behind alcohol, a legal substance. Whatever the reason, many health statistics are blurred because more than one substance in present in the body, and alcohol is usually in the mix.

If a combination of drugs and alcohol is the worst case for killing brain cells, there is also some competition for the top spot. Some argue that cocaine kills more brain cells than any other substance alone. Others argue that an opiate would have to get that top spot. Since everyone reacts to drugs differently, this is a difficult statistic to nail down.

Drugs That Kill Fewer Brain Cells Still Kill Brain Cells

Addicts always seem to be looking for an excuse to do what they do. Perhaps instead of justifying one substance over another because it kills fewer brain cells, the argument should be about avoiding all substances that interfere with proper brain function. None of the neurological effects of drug abuse on the brain are good, but brain damage caused by drug use is a sad reality. The best conclusion to draw is that drugs are bad because they hurt your brain.

How to Deal with Drugs and Brain Damage

The longer drug abuse goes on, the more damage is done to the brain, and the chances of reversing this damage is reduced. This is why it’s so important to recognize addiction and get help right away. If someone you love shows signs of drug abuse, the faster you act to help end this dangerous behavior, the more brain cells you could save.

Contact 12 Keys For Help

hammock fixContacting 12 Keys is the first step in saving those brain cells. We understand the effects various substances have on the brain and nervous system and are fully prepared to help. Brain cells are precious, no matter how many you have. Our detox program is designed to clean those offending chemicals out of the body and the brain. Once the system is cleaned up, we can work on keeping it clean, allowing brain cells to regenerate in positive ways.

Everyone reacts to drugs differently. At 12 Keys, we offer an individualized program for rehab that addresses a person’s specific needs. Through caring treatment, we can help the brain adjust to a new healthy normal state, developing new thought patterns that support a happy, drug-free future.

If you use illicit drugs and don’t think your brain is being affected, you need to call 12 Keys right away. All drugs have side effects, and the most abused ones like alcohol, marijuana, heroin, cocaine and meth affect your brain in serious ways. Just because you’re not blacking out when you use, doesn’t mean your brain is not affected. Changes to brain chemistry can be subtle at first or go completely undetected by the user. Let 12 Keys help you get on a path to cleaner living. Someday, your brain will thank you.

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The Addiction Blog