Substance use and abuse on the Brain

We’ve all heard about how bad alcohol, cigarette smoking, marijuana, heroin etc. are for our health. We also know that they have a profound effect on our brain and its functional abilities. But do you know what exactly happens to your brain each time you take a swig of the Russian vodka or a puff of that Marlborough cigarette? Sure you feel elated or relaxed each time you indulge in such activities, this is because all drugs and alcoholic substances work by disrupting neurotransmission, basically acting like on and off switches within neural circuits in the brain. Sadly however, the fact is that the long term impact of these substances on your brain is nothing less than unfortunate. Here’s an outline on the effects of substance abuse on the structural anatomy of your master organ.

  1. Alcohol – causes shrinking of the brain and decreasing the amount of white matter (the portion of the brain which transmits information between the cells of the brain) causing accelerated aging related functional deterioration. There is also an associated decrease in the blood flow within specific areas of the brain associated with higher intellectual functions, balance and gait.
  2. Smoking – decreases blood supply to the brain by blocking arterial supply resulting in stroke which causes permanent damage due to ischemia and death of brain tissue. Additionally there is increased oxidative stress resulting in further direct organ damage.
  3. Marijuana – conflicting results have been reported however some studies have shown that long term marijuana use results in reduced neuronal connectivity and shrinkage of specific regions that are involved in memory, learning and impulse control. Additionally age-related loss of hippocampal neurons is hastened which further complicates learning and memory.
  4. Cocaine – causes loss of neuronal cells due to up regulation of self-destructing processes within the brain. This overactive autophagy or cell suicide results in a reduction in brain mass and volume.
  5. Heroin – accelerates aging resulting in a brain that is structurally similar to that of an Alzheimer’s patient. It also causes degeneration and spongification of brain tissue. Importantly it causes temporary oxygen deprivation which is lethal to brain tissue causing irreversible nervous deficits in affected areas.

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