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Mood Chemicals and Their Effect on the Brain

Mood Chemicals and Their Effect on the Brain

Mood chemicals like dopamine and serotonin regulate emotions and wellbeing, but they become unbalanced when you use drugs

In the early years of addiction recovery, people thought that addicts chose to be addicts—the prevailing idea was that addiction was a moral or personal failure. Fortunately, our understanding of addiction has grown, so addiction is now understood as a chronic brain disease. Experts in addiction science argue that addiction has as much to do with the chemicals in the brain as the drugs being taken. To understand how bodily chemicals affect people, it’s important to understand how the brain communicates with the rest of the body.

Neurons and the Brain

The brain is made up of billions of cells called neurons, the basic working units of the brain. The interaction of these neurons is responsible for every bodily function, from reading this article to scratching an itch.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, neurons have the following three basic parts:

  • Cell body, the main part of the neuron that contains cytoplasm. Think of cytoplasm as a microscopic bag that contains the chemicals, nutrients and other necessary material to make the neuron work.
  • Axon, a long fiber that extends from a neuron’s cell body. Most neurons have only one axon, which sends electric or chemical impulses from one neuron to the other.
  • Dendrites, finger-like structures that extend off the cell body like branches of a tree. These parts receive the electric and chemical signals from neighboring neurons, so they bring information to the cell body.

Between every neuron is a synapse, a gap between the axons and dendrites. When triggered, a neuron will release a chemical messenger called a neurotransmitter to jump across the synapse to the neighboring axon so it can bind to receptors on the ends of dendrites. A process called re-uptake occurs to keep neurotransmitter levels steady: in re-uptake, the receiving neuron says “That’s plenty!” to the neuron that released neurotransmitters. After being told to stop, the sending neuron picks up the leftover neurotransmitters and quits releasing new ones. However, foreign chemicals in the brain, like drugs, interfere with this process of sending and receiving messages across the synapse.

Neurotransmitters and the Brain

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the brain contains well over 100 neurotransmitters. These chemicals influence almost every aspect of functioning, but two of them are related to drugs and the biology of addiction.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the following neurotransmitters are commonly involved in drug use, abuse and addiction:

  • Dopamine plays the starring role in drug abuse and addiction. Not only does this chemical impact thought and emotion, but it is also linked to the reward systems in the brain. Eating something you like or engaging in sexual activity causes dopamine levels to increase, but drugs also increase dopamine levels. When someone uses cocaine, the drug stops neurons from absorbing dopamine, so the synapse and receptor sites get flooded by this chemical for much longer than normal. The extra dopamine produces cocaine’s intense pleasure. According to The Scripps Research Institute, cocaine sharply increases dopamine levels to two to three times the normal level; when the cocaine wears off, dopamine levels fall below normal levels, which may cause depression, anxiety and drug cravings. These negative feeling often cause people to use cocaine again to feel better. Every drug will interact with dopamine differently—for example, methamphetamine abuse decreases dopamine activity, which compromises mental function.
  • Serotonin affects several functions of the brain, including mood, learning, appetite, impulsive behavior, aggression and sleep. Levels of this chemical change with alcohol and illegal drugs: when opioids, marijuana and stimulants are in the body, they elevate serotonin; the drop that coincides with withdrawal may be the reason for the depression and anxiety during detox. Serotonin also interacts with hallucinogens like LSD. Taking hallucinogens increases serotonin levels by interfering with their re-uptake by the neuron that sent the neurotransmitter. This process produces the short-term euphoria, but drugs eventually deplete serotonin, which results in depressed mood.

Over time, continued drug use changes the brain’s neurotransmitter levels. If dopamine remains in the brain, then the brain adjusts to make the elevated level its new “normal.” In addiction terms, this reaction is called tolerance, and it means you need to take more of the drug to achieve the same level of high. During detox, drugs leave the system, so you will experience withdrawal symptoms, because the brain has become accustomed to the higher levels of neurotransmitters. Fortunately, the chemicals in the brain will eventually return to pre-addiction levels, but the detox could be painful. In response, get help when trying to get clean.

Getting Help for Your Addiction

If you or a loved one is struggling with a drug addiction, we can help. Call our toll-free, 24 hour helpline anytime to speak with one of our admission coordinators. Our staff can help you determine the best options to treat your addiction; they can even help you find a treatment center that treats your particular addiction. Don’t let drugs alter your brain any longer—call us now to get the help you need.