When people take a drug, narcotic, or another substance, they often only think of the immediate effects. Rarely do they think about the long-term consequences of substance abuse, which is why drug addiction is such a prevalent and insidious disease. What many people do not realize is that abusing certain drugs can cause physical and permanent damage to the brain, resulting in lifelong physical and mental health complications.
Four areas of the brain that can be damaged by drug abuse are:
- Dopamine receptors: A common form of brain damage caused by repeated drug use and abuse is dopamine receptor damage. Drugs that target the dopamine receptors like marijuana and many opiates can begin to wear down and shut down those receptors. When the receptor is completely damaged, it becomes nonfunctional, so overall dopamine production in your brain is reduced. The consequence is a permanent or semi-permanent loss of motivation and a generalized feeling that you don’t control your emotions.
- Serotonin neurotransmitters: Serotonin is an important hormone that helps regulate your feelings of happiness. Hallucinogens and mood-altering drugs often target serotonin neurotransmitters to force feelings of euphoria. Abusing these drugs can damage the neurotransmitter permanently, making it seem more difficult to feel happy, even when participating in behaviors that you know you used to enjoy. It is not uncommon for people who are addicted to ecstasy, for example, to suffer from deep depression when not on the drug.
- GABA producers: Damage to GABA producers and transmitters can be caused by benzodiazepine drugs in particular. GABA or gamma-aminobutyric acid is a natural tranquilizer that helps the brain manage stressful situations without spiraling into a panic. It also helps regulate bodily functions during heightened stress, such as keeping a steady heart rate. Abusing benzos can permanently damage the central nervous system so GABA is produced less or becomes less effective, resulting in anxiety.
- Norepinephrine neurotransmitters: Norepinephrine – which is both a hormone and neurotransmitter – is important in your body’s process of sending messages or signals across nerve endings throughout your body. It acts similar to adrenaline in that it activates the most during moments of stress. It can decrease your reaction time and increase your awareness of the space and events around you. Damaging norepinephrine producers in the brain through the abuse of most opiates can cause chronic paranoia and jitters, as well as a steep difficulty to relax.