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Effects of drugs on the brain & teen moods

Finding ways to satisfy needs and desires is part of life. It's one of the many skills that is being fine-tuned during the teen years. When a teen takes drugs, it can interfere with his natural ability to feel good. Here's how drugs affect the brain:

The brain is made up of billions of nerve cells. Nerves control everything from when his heart beats to what he feels, thinks and does. They do this by sending electrical signals throughout his body. The signals get passed from nerve, to nerve by chemical messengers called "neurotransmitters."

For example, some of the signals that neurotransmitters send cause a feeling of satisfaction or pleasure. These natural rewards are the body's way of making sure we look for more of what makes us feel good. (For instance, when we eat something tasty, neurotransmitters tell us we feel good. Seeking more of this pleasure helps to ensure we don't starve.) The main neurotransmitter of the "feel-good" message is called dopamine.

Dopamine increases a little bit in response to food, but too much in response to cocaine.1

All drugs of abuse overload the body with dopamine — in other words, they cause the reward system to send too many "feel-good" signals. In response, the body's brain systems try to right the balance by letting fewer of the "feel-good" signals through. As time goes on, the body needs more of the drug to feel the same high as before. This effect is known as "tolerance."

The effects of drugs on the brain don’t just end when the high wears off. When a person stops taking a drug, his dopamine levels are low for some time. He may feel down, or flat, and unable to feel the normal pleasures in life, even when meeting a basic life need. His brain will eventually restore the dopamine balance by itself, but it takes time — anywhere from hours, to days, or even months, depending on the drug, the length and amount of abuse, and the person.

Because they have an over-active impulse to seek pleasure and less ability to consider the consequences, teens are especially vulnerable when it comes to the temptations of drugs and alcohol. And because the internal reward systems are still being developed, a teen's ability to bounce back to normal after abusing drugs may be compromised due to how drugs affect the brain.

1 National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Drugs and the Brain

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