The Permanent Effects of Drugs on the Mind

addicted brain

All drugs have potential side effects that could be damaging to your mind and body. The abuse of drugs is known as drug addiction and is considered a chronic brain disease. Someone who is abusing drugs could experience short term or long term effects, which will vary from person to person. However, some of the effects can continue to affect someone for years or even their entire lifetime. Addiction is a debilitating disease and can lead to significant impairment in someone’s life. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, it is best to seek help immediately.

Drugs that can become addictive work by affecting the pathways in the brain that control the reward principle. This can otherwise be known as the dopamine system, which is the pathway that gives you an intense happy feeling. Drugs have the ability to affect the synapses in the brain that allow your right and left hemispheres to communicate with each other and can lower receptor activity. A person’s normal reward system is thus amped up by drug activity, past the levels it should be at. The brain works overtime, trying to make changes to adapt to this increase. The changes that the brain goes through in order to adapt can make the brain less responsive to the drug.

Some of these changes in order to compensate could include:

  • An increase in dopamine production.
  • The rewiring of certain brain cells.
  • Permanent loss in brain function as a result of cell death.

Continued use of a substance can mean continued brain changes. Not only will the dopamine pathway be affected, but also those responsible for making decisions, learning, and even memory. This could mean that there are more connections between neurons or that neuron pathways are being depleted. The continued substance abuse makes the user seek more and more drugs in order to experience the same level of high and makes them do almost anything to obtain it.


Use of opioids over an extended period of time can have dire consequences on the dopamine receptors in the brain. Continued use can result in diminished receptors, which means a person addicted to opiates will need to use more and more of the drug in order to get the same high. Dopamine receptors could then go from just getting smaller, to permanently disappear. This will lead to the drug user having continuous cravings for the drug.

An opioid overdose can have serious consequences as well and cause potentially permanent brain damage. When a person experiences an overdose, brain damage can develop due to the lack of oxygen that occurs. Brain damage can also occur due to the slowed respiratory system, which can also occur when an addiction abuses alcohol.


Stimulants, contrary to their name, actually have a similar effect on the body as depressants. They cause the dopamine system receptors to become inactive. Drugs that are considered stimulants include methamphetamine and amphetamines. The depletion of these receptors can cause anhedonia. People with anhedonia experience trouble enjoying the things they once loved and an incapability to experience pleasure.


Alcohol is considered a depressant, which means it depresses your bodily functions in relation to your central nervous system. Alcohol specifically can cause a vitamin deficiency, specifically thiamine. A deficiency in thiamine can cause Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This syndrome can cause a psychosis of the brain and have everlasting brain damage. A person struggling with alcohol addiction who has been diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome may experience muscle atrophy, memory problems, and learning disabilities.

What Parts Of The Brain Are Affected?

  • The basal ganglia is what makes up the area that is commonly referred to as the reward circuit. When your brain registers something as positive, it travels along this circuit. That means that motivation, sex, socializing, and other healthy habits can be affected by drug use. Repeated use of drugs can cause this circuit to even weak or deplete, making it harder or impossible to enjoy anything other than the drug.
  • The prefrontal cortex, which may or may not be completely mature, can be affected. The prefrontal cortex can still be developing late into the teen years. This circuit powers the ability to problem solve and perform critical thinking. Drug use can damage this circuit and cause someone to lose control over impulses.
  • The brain stem can also be affected. The brain stem is in control of certain basic, but very important aspects of the body. This includes heart rate and breathing. This is why an overdose can cause a person to have a slowed heart rate and may even be fatal.


Why Are Drugs So Addictive?

The high from drugs is referred to as pleasure and creates a euphoric sensation. The actually scientific processes of pleasure are not greatly understood. However, researchers have concluded that this sensation is most likely caused by a surge of feel-good chemicals entering the reward circuit. When drugs are taken, the surges are much greater than anything we get pleasure from following our daily routines.

When this surge takes place, the brain wants to mark it as something we should do again to repeat the effects. That is why dopamine will then be shot off. The signal created by the dopamine has the ability to change our neurons and make the drug use a habit. The brain will still do this, even if it comes at a cost.

Even if someone has been sober for years, the brain can go through intense cravings if you happen to be triggered by something associated with your previous drug use. This is why some drug users may feel unmotivated and empty.

Drug abuse can have dire consequences. Once portions of the brain are rewired or depleted, it is often irreversible. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, the best course of action is to seek help immediately to limit the permanent effects it could have on your mind and body. Even though the damage may be done, the professionals at Arizona Addiction Recovery Center can help you manage your addiction and overcome your symptoms. Learning how to manage your symptoms and taking the steps towards sobriety can help you return to the most rewarding life you can.