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How Drugs Hijack Your Brain
Represent staff

Drugs and alcohol make you feel good by artificially raising the levels of those chemicals, especially dopamine. “When someone does a drug,” says Dr. Kim Sumner-Mayer, a family therapist at the Phoenix House Center on Addiction and the Family, “the levels of dopamine rise to several times higher than they do in response to other pleasurable events. Then, after your brain comes back down to normal from that incredible high, it crashes so low that you don’t feel good.”

Your brain wants more of that high, and if you keep taking the drug to get that high, your brain will eventually stop making those chemicals, or stop responding to the chemicals the way that they normally would. That means the things that used to give you pleasure before you started taking the drug can’t give you pleasure anymore. The brain itself changes as it adjusts to getting and needing the drug.

“The brain’s pleasure and rewards center gets hijacked by the drug,” explains Sumner-Mayer.

At the same time, drugs and alcohol also affect a part of your brain called the neocortex that keeps you from doing dangerous things. Ira Moses, Ph.D., who used to run a drug abuse program, calls the neocortex “the brain’s brakes—it controls most of the brain’s functions.” The neocortex helps us think through consequences of our behavior, consider risks, and stop us from doing things that might feel good in the short run, but harm us or the ones we love in the long run. This part of the brain basically gets turned off by drugs and alcohol.

Moses points out that this is why people get violent when they’re high. “Several drugs lower our inhibitions, because our neocortex goes on vacation. Drugs that jack you up, like cocaine and methamphetamines, may be more likely to lead to violent acts than marijuana or ecstasy, and some people become violent when they use alcohol.”

But all drugs are capable of causing long-term, maybe even permanent, harm, and Moses points out that drugs are worse for a teenager than an adult. “The brain is still developing in your teens. Anything that short-circuits that development is not healthy.” The pleasure and reward centers of the brain are especially sensitive during adolescence, and the neocortex isn’t fully developed until around age 25. And some studies show it keeps growing even after that.

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