Out of your mind on drugs

by Jasmine Wallis

You’ve heard of them before – and maybe even tried some: drugs. How do they affect your brain?

Drugs aren’t just what you take at house parties to get your buzz on – they’re anything that alters your mood and energy levels. Of course, some come with more risks than others and some are more socially acceptable than others. With help from Jellinek, the Netherland’s leading expert in addiction, read on about what each of them actually do to your brain.

Weed, hash, pot: whatever you want to call it, marijuana is one of the most common drugs consumed, particularly in the drug-friendly Dutch capital of Amsterdam. Marijuana is a by-product of the hemp plant and includes the chemical THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) which contains the active ingredient, cannabis. It’s this chemical that gives you the sensation of being high with results such as feeling relaxed but also side-effects like coordination problems, decreased memory function and a hunger that can’t be satisfied i.e. the munchies.

The reason that cannabis makes you feel super relaxed and gives you a sense of well-being comes down to the fact that the drug stimulates the brain’s reward centre – the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Basically, you have a neurotransmitter – the chemicals that transmit communications from one nerve cell to another – in your brain called the GABA (Gamma animobutyric acid). Usually, GABA releases a certain amount of dopamine and slows down activity of other nerve cells. When you consume marijuana, the THC in the drug interferes and allows a whole heap of that ‘feel-good’ chemical around your body. And whilst you can’t overdose on marijuana as the brain areas responsible for your heart rate and breathing aren’t affected by the drug, it’s this huge release of dopamine that results in people becoming addicted to the high.

On the subject of serotonin; the effects of ecstasy which is chemically known as MDMA (Methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine) are derived due to a huge release of the ‘happy chemical’. Once again, this surge of chemicals creates a feeling of intense euphoria and can help you bond to others. Due to serotonin also controlling your body temperature, it is possible to overheat when dancing for long periods of time without drinking enough water. The boost of serotonin can also affect the storing memories and over time, result in memory impairments. But, what goes up must come down and when you take ecstasy, you’re using up your brain’s stores of serotonin! This could result in feelings of depression and anxiety as your brain recovers.

Heroin is at the bottom of a very long chain of supply that surprisingly begins at the poppy plant. The drug is processed from morphine which is an opiate (powerful drugs used as narcotics) and found from naturally occurring substances in certain varieties of the plant. This illegal and highly addictive drug is either snorted, smoked or injected into the body. The opiates bind to receptors in your body and your natural endorphins. One function of the endorphins we produce is to fight pain. However, whilst your natural endorphins are broken down quickly after they’re released, heroin stimulates your brain’s reward centre and the pleasant, pain-reducing effects are felt for longer.

Constant use of heroin means your body struggles to produce the feel-good chemical, dopamine, naturally and you’re no longer able to feel pleasure without the addictive drug. The body reacts to these opiates in many ways: The pupils in your eyes become the size of pinheads due to the receptors reacting, your brain’s vomiting centre is affected resulting in nausea and vomiting, and your bowels – which contain a lot of receptors – are also impacted which equals constipation. Remember that trippy toilet scene in ‘Trainspotting’? This drug also controls your breathing and lungs and a worst-case scenario means that your brain can’t control your breathing, resulting in an overdose. Heroin: Not even once, kids.

Alcohol influences your brain thanks to a whole cocktail of chemicals (get it?). The reason that you feel like you can tell that stranger at the bar your deepest, darkest secrets comes down to your brain’s serotonin neurotransmitter system. Serotonin is an important part of your body as it controls your mood, social behaviour, sleep, appetite and sexual desire. When you share a bottle of wine with a friend on a Friday night, the alcohol is stimulating your brain’s serotonin levels which is why you can feel relaxed, euphoric and closer to others. Like the marijuana we mentioned earlier, the GABA system is also impacted by the consumption of alcohol.

The part of your brain that controls fine motor functions, such as movements in your hands and feet, is called the cerebellum, which also happens to include many GABA receptors. The reason you might spill your drink whilst out with friends is because your cerebellum function is slowing down thanks to the alcohol hitching a ride and binding to the GABA receptors. Alcohol also slows down the transfer of information between nerve cells in the hippocampus (the part of your brain that controls memory), which is the reason you might have a couple of blank spots from your night out on the weekend!

No matter what you choose to experiment with or take, make sure you’re in a safe place with people who are looking out for you. If this article brings up any issues relating drugs or drug issues, don’t hesitate to call Jellinek on 088 – 505 1220.