Begin Your Recovery
(619) 797-7319

How Do Psychoactive Drugs Affect the Brain

CALL NOW: (619) 797-7319

How Do Psychoactive Drugs Affect the Brain

Written by Genesis Recovery

In 2018, more than 19 million adults in America had a substance use disorder (SUD). More than 14 million struggled with alcohol use, 7.4 million struggled with drugs, and 2.5 million struggled with both drugs and alcohol.

What Are Psychoactive Drugs?

Alcohol and illicit drugs (like cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, prescription pain killers, etc.) are all psychoactive drugs. Psychoactive drugs are drugs that affect the Central Nervous System, altering its regular activity. They cause changes in a person's mood, behavior, and awareness (like time and space).

Psychoactive drugs are usually broken down into four categories: depressants, stimulants, opioids, and hallucinogens. They also include antidepressants, anxiety-relieving medicines, and other psychiatric medications.

Studies throughout the 2010s have found that 1 in 6 Americans take a psychiatric drug, with nearly 25% of adults between the ages of 60-85 reportedly taking at least one psychotropic drug while less than 1 in 10 adults between 18-35 reported having taken a psychiatric drug.

Depressants Effect On The Brain

The most common depressant is alcohol, but other "downers" include benzodiazepines, sleeping pills, barbiturates, and "antipsychotics". Depressants inhibit the CNS, increasing the activation of the GABA neurotransmitter. This increased activity reduces brain activity, resulting in the relaxing effect of these drugs. Other symptoms of taking depressants include:

  • Slow brain function
  • Poor concentration
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Slurred speech
  • Visual disturbances
  • Lack of coordination
  • Depression
  • Addiction

When taking depressants, people can develop drug tolerance rapidly. Tolerance means a person has to take a higher and higher dose to feel the same effects as the first time they used or ingested the drug. As tolerance increases, so does the risk of drug dependency, addiction, and withdrawal.

Stimulants Effect On The Brain

Stimulants include illicit drugs like cocaine, and amphetamine, as well as legal drugs like caffeine and medical prescription drugs to treat ADHD.

Like all drugs that may lead to abuse, stimulants affect the limbic reward system of the brain. Stimulants increase the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that regulates the feelings of pleasure and alters the control of movement, cognition, motivation, and euphoria. When there are high levels of dopamine, a person will feel their mood enhances (feelings of euphoria) and increased motor activity. However, when there is a dopamine surge, people may become nervous, irritable, aggressive, or paranoid. Other effects of stimulants include hallucinations as well as bizarre thoughts and paranoia that approaches schizophrenia.

Like depressants, stimulants can lead to increased tolerance, dependence, and addiction.

Opioids Effect On The Brain

Opioids have become a national epidemic. In America, more than 130 people die every day from overdosing on opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Opioids are highly addictive, whether they are illicit drugs (like heroin) or prescription pain killers.

These drugs are called opioids partly because they activate the opioid receptors on nerve cells, mimicking the effects of pain-relieving chemicals that would otherwise be produced naturally. Opioids, though, also release high levels of dopamine, leading to the intense feelings of euphoria and pleasure caused by other drugs.

Opioids are particularly addictive because long-term use changes the way nerve cells work in the brain; even when someone is taking them as prescribed to treat pain.

Hallucinogens Effect On The Brain

Hallucinogens like mushrooms, LSD, DMT, and ayahuasca affect the brain differently. They primarily affect the neural circuits in the brain that produce serotonin (a neurotransmitter) and produce perception-altering effects in the user.

These experiences are unpredictable and vary from person to person. While these drugs do not produce the physical symptoms of withdrawal and addiction that opioids, stimulants, and depressants cause, they do significantly alter the way the brain works.

Long-term effects of hallucinogens include persistent visual disturbances (flashbacks), disorganized thinking, paranoia, and mood disturbances. Flashbacks (formally termed Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder), produce intense hallucinations that are nearly impossible to predict.

Struggling with Psychoactive Drugs?

Many people who struggle with substance use disorders are either unaware or refuse to acknowledge that drugs are causing negative consequences in their lives. If you are concerned about your use of drugs (or someone in your life is using drugs in a way that concerns you), contact the qualified addiction treatment professionals at Genesis Recovery for help.

We're Here To Help.
Contact Us Today.


(619) 797-7319


[email protected]


24352 Featherstone Canyon Rd, Lakeside, CA 92040
[email protected]