By Lisa Marinelli Smith
The iconic commercial of cracked eggs in a frying pan with the powerful message, “This is your brain on drugs,” tuned a generation of teens and their parents into the destructive nature of drug abuse.
With the damage illegal drugs, misused prescription drugs and alcohol can cause, the analogy still rings true today.
Drugs and alcohol are toxins that disrupt normal brain function and distort reality. They damage brain cells, neurons and receptors and interfere with how the brain sends messages throughout the body.
Because of the euphoric feelings drugs and alcohol cause, people get addicted, leading to more damage and long-term consequences.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction occurs when repeated drug use leads to changes in the function of multiple brain circuits that control:
Drug and alcohol abuse cause damage throughout the body and brain, including seizures, blackouts and strokes. A person’s loss of control and judgment also leads to other health risks, such as traumatic brain injuries from driving drunk or falling from heights.
When repeated abuse of drugs or alcohol damages the brain, it can take a long time to return to a more normal state, if at all. The lasting effects of brain damage depend on what substance was consumed, how much and over how long.
Drug abuse and the brain
Drugs affect the brain in different ways. Some drugs like marijuana and heroin attach to neurons and send abnormal messages through the brain’s neurological network.
Other drugs like amphetamine and cocaine cause neurons to release abnormally large amounts of neurotransmitters, also tampering with communication among neurons, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Brain areas affected by drug use are:
Prefrontal cortex – Enables our ability to think, plan, problem-solve, make decisions and control impulses. Drug abuse impairs these abilities.
How alcohol consumption affects the brain
Alcohol enters the bloodstream within seconds of the first sip as the stomach lining absorbs it. It reaches the brain as soon as five minutes, and people can notice changes in their behavior and thinking in 10 minutes, according to the National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
As you drink, you increase your blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream. The higher the level, the more impaired you become.
Several factors affect the extent that alcohol will affect the brain, according to the NIAAA:
Heavy alcohol consumption over the years puts people at risk for memory loss and decreased attention span. It also can lead to a deficiency in thiamine, also known as B1. This deficiency can cause Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a neurological disorder that produces severe confusion, visual disturbances and combative, violent behavior.
EEGs and alcohol, drug use
Several imaging devices can give experts a glimpse into how drugs and alcohol impact the brain, including MRIs and PET scans.
Electroencephalography (EEG) is another noninvasive tool doctors and counselors can use to evaluate how alcohol and drug abuse affects the brain. That’s because EEGs give us a real-time snapshot of how the brain communicates by measuring its electrical activity, providing us with information about the brain’s overall health.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, was previously known as dementia pugilistica or “punch-drunk syndrome” for its association with former boxers demonstrating declining ability, memory loss, and lack of coordination. The hallmark risk factor that separates the syndrome from other tauopathies and dementias is repeated trauma to the head, otherwise known as traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs. It’s this repeated trauma where things become an issue for contact sports.