Drugs, alcohol and your brain

By Lisa Marinelli Smith
NeuLine Health

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: 

  • Decision-making 
  • Impulse control 
  • Learning 
  • Memory 
  • Pleasures/rewards
  • Stress

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:

  • Basal ganglia – Responsible for the brain’s reward circuit. When drugs overload this circuit, a person feels euphoric. With repeated drug use, it becomes harder and harder to achieve the same feelings, so the person will turn to drugs more often. 
  • Brain stem – Controls essential life functions, such as heart rate, breathing and sleeping. Opioids affect the brain stem, which explains why those who overdose on opioids can experience depressed breathing and death.
  • Extended amygdala – Creates feelings of anxiety, irritability and unease. These feelings occur as the drug high fades. As this region becomes increasingly sensitive to drug use, people start to take drugs not just for the high but also to avoid these feelings. 

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:

  • Age someone began drinking and for how many years
  • How much and how often someone drinks
  • Gender, genetics
  • Overall health 

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. 
NeuLine Health offers at-home, ambulatory EEGs for patients, usually over 72 hours. The comfortable setting at home lends itself to more accurate results. For more information about our EEGs, call NeuLine Health at (844) 212-5321 or visit our website.


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