Drug abuse has multiple definitions. It involves the use of any illegal drug such as cocaine, marijuana, or heroin. Drug abuse is also the use of an inhaled chemical to get “high” (ie: gasoline,paint thinner, and glue), a plant part to get “high” (ie: jimson weed seeds or mushrooms), or any purposeful improper use of a prescription drug.
When drugs enter the brain, they can interrupt the brain’s work and actually change how the brain performs its jobs. These changes are what lead to compulsive drug use, the hallmark of addiction.
Drugs of abuse affect three primary areas of the brain:
Drugs are chemicals. They work in the brain by tapping into its communication system and interfering with the way nerve cells normally send, receive, and process information. In fact, some drugs can change the brain in ways that last long after the person has stopped taking drugs, maybe even permanently. This is more likely when a drug is taken repeatedly.
Some drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, activate neurons (nerve cells) because their chemical structure mimics that of a natural neurotransmitter (brain chemicals that send signals). Other drugs, such as amphetamine, cause nerve cells to release excessive amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals.
Further, all drugs of abuse affects the brain’s “reward” circuit, which is part of the limbic system. Normally, the reward circuit responds to pleasurable experiences by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which creates feelings of pleasure, and tells the brain that this is something important to pay attention to and remember. Drugs hijack this system, causing unusually large amounts of dopamine to flood the system. This flood of dopamine is what causes the “high” or euphoria associated with drug abuse.
The first time someone uses a drug of abuse, he or she experiences unnaturally intense feelings of pleasure. The reward circuitry is activated with dopamine carrying the message. Now the person needs drugs just to bring dopamine levels up to normal. Larger amounts of the drug are needed to create a dopamine flood, or “high,” an effect known as “tolerance.” These brain changes drive a person to seek out and use drugs compulsively, despite negative consequences such as stealing, losing friends, family problems, or other physical or mental problems brought on by drug addiction. It impairs your ability to think clearly, to feel OK without drugs, and to control your behaviors. These all contribute to the compulsive drug seeking and drug use that defines an addiction. (2)
For detailed information on each drug, refer to http://teens.drugabuse.gov/facts/index.php
For fun games to help learn more about all drugs, please refer to http://teens.drugabuse.gov/interactives-and-videos
There are treatments for drug addictions, but getting a person who is addicted into treatment problems can be difficult. Sometimes a loved one can convince that person or sometimes it is a legal requirement to get them into treatment facilities. The good news is that the right program can be beneficial to some addicts.
There are questions people can ask to assess whether or not a person has a drug problem. These do not necessarily indicate that someone is addicted, but answering yes to any of these questions may suggest a developing problem, which could require follow-up with a professional drug treatment specialist. These include (2):
It’s usually hard for people to recognize they have a problem, which is why friends or family often step in. Quitting is hard to do, and many people find they can’t do it without help. The best thing you can do is to talk to someone you trust-preferably an adult-who can support you” so you don’t have to deal with your problem alone.
Lots of resources are available for people with substance abuse problems. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous offer information and recovery programs for teens. The Alcohol and Drug Information hotline is (800) 729-6686.
Information Last updated January 2019
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