March 16-22, 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of Brain Awareness Week, the Dana Foundation’s global campaign to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research.
It is no secret that drugs and alcohol affect the brain. The “good” feeling one can experience through drug or alcohol use is partially due to dopamine release. Dopamine is the chemical that mediates pleasure in the brain; it is released during pleasurable situations and stimulates one to seek out the pleasurable activity or occupation. [NewsMedical.net] This can include consumption of nicotine, alcohol or drugs.
However, dopamine release is a short-term effect, as seen in alcohol use:
Over time, with more drinking, the dopamine effect diminishes until it’s almost nonexistent. But at this stage, a drinker is often “hooked” on the feeling of dopamine release in the reward center, even though they’re no longer getting it. Once a compulsive need to go back again and again for that release is established, addiction takes hold. [Forbes]
The brain’s neurotransmitters are a complicated system. Along with dopamine release, drugs can activate neurons because their chemical structure mimics that of a natural neurotransmitter:
Although these drugs [such as marijuana and heroin] mimic the brain’s own chemicals, they don’t activate neurons in the same way as a natural neurotransmitter, and they lead to abnormal messages being transmitted through the network.
Other drugs, such as amphetamine or cocaine, can cause the neurons to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals. This disruption produces a greatly amplified message, ultimately disrupting communication channels. [NIDA]
Long term damage to the brain from alcohol and drug use has been seen in studies — and the teen brain is more vulnerable to affects. For example, a Harvard study found that people who began using marijuana before age 16 and who used it the most performed the worst on a test of cognitive flexibility. [CNN]
Bring awareness to brain health to others! Use the Brain Awareness Week’s Event Planning Guide to plan an event or campaign. Get the word out!
Related sources and resources:
- Dana Foundation – Your gateway to responsible information about the brain
- Brain Awareness Week Tips and Resources – Dana Foundation
- Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction – NIDA
- What Alcohol Really Does to Your Brain – Forbes
- Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain – NIAAA
- Club Drugs Inflict Damage Similar To Traumatic Brain Injury – Science Daily
- Teen brain more prone to drug, alcohol damage – CNN