The brain-addiction connection: Alcohol use affects almost everything

Alcohol is the most popular psychoactive substance used in the U.S. and the worldWith statistics showing that at least 50% of adults in the US are regular alcohol drinkers (drinkers who have consumed 12 drinks or more in the past year¹), alcohol clearly remains the drug of choice for most Americans. While moderate alcohol use is not deemed dangerous, and is likely even healthy², it is nevertheless still important to know how chemicals we put in our bodies affect us. Many people know and often hear about alcohol abuse and its effects on the liver, the broad effects of alcohol use on other bodily systems, especially the brain, don’t seem to get that much attention. In the tradition of our other brain-addiction articles, we aim to do just that.

Alcohol use and brain depression

In a nutshell, alcohol depresses the central nervous system, causing the uninhibited, relaxed feeling that even the most casual drinker is familiar with. It does so mainly by interrupting brain communication – suppressing the excitatory nerve pathway (by affecting glutamate) and increasing the inhibitory activity (by affecting GABA).

Glutamate is the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain – it’s the one that commonly turns certain brain cells on and increases their firing activity. When alcohol is consumed it inhibits glutamate activity, which diminishes the excitatory effect of glutamate and reduces important relevant functions.

GABA is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain – it reduces firing activity and generally turns targets off. When alcohol is consumed it enhances GABA’s inhibition, which is always present throughout the brain to some extent, by directly increasing the activity of many GABA releasing neurons.

In short, alcohol use simultaneously suppresses important new brain activity and inhibits ongoing function at the same time, resulting in an intense depressive effect.

Interference with these two neurotransmitters, some of the most common ones found in the brain, is the reason for alcohol’s wide-ranging effects, particularly on the memory, which depends on the activation, by glutamate, of two receptor types – AMPA and NMDA. Without them, there’s no learning- and no memory (blackout anyone?).

The effects of alcohol use on behavior

By interfering with brain function, alcohol use lowers inhibitions, allowing drinkers to be more outgoing (and willing to do things they most likely otherwise wouldn’t). Information processing is also compromised when drinking, mostly due to alcohol’s effects on the cerebral cortex (and glutamate which is responsible for everything from seeing, to hearing, and more). This is the part of the brain which takes in a person’s senses and thoughts, and helps with voluntary muscle movements. Alcohol use causes impaired thoughts, poor judgment, and a higher threshold for pain. What you’re left with is someone who is slower and less thoughtful, but feels stronger and smarter, all while experiencing less pain. This is, of course, a dangerous combination.

Alcohol use also can influence a person’s cerebellum and limbic system, which control coordination, and emotional regulation, respectively. We’ve all seen those brave-drunks – normally shy individuals who get a little liquid courage in them and are suddenly the life of the party, all while barely being able to put one foot in front of the other. This is a great example of alcohol’s effect on the limbic system as well as the cerebellum. When the limbic system is impaired, individuals often experience memory loss, especially when it comes to emotional states and experiences. Limbic system dysfunction can also lead to individuals experiencing exaggerated feelings (the “I LOVE you, man!” effect). Cerebellum problems lead to a lack of muscle control and fine motor movements – just what you want when you’re trying to steer a car at 65 miles per hour and stay on the road.

The alcohol-sex connection

Due to its effect on the hypothalamus, alcohol use also plays a role in decreasing a person’s sexual desire and performance. The hypothalamus, along with the medulla, plays a role in controlling many regulatory functions of the brain and body. The hypothalamus is the control center for much of the body’s hormone function and governs the autonomic nervous system. The hypothalamus is part of the system than keeps the body in homeostasis, a balanced state that can be considered the “baseline” of system function. In this role, the hypothalamus organizes and controls many complex emotions, feelings and motivational states. The neurons in the hypothalamus produce a number of neurotransmitters which give instructions to different parts of the body.

When this neurotransmitter function get impaired, these systems get depressed, which lowers sexual desire and performance as well as causing individuals to become sleepy- at which point sexual performance doesn’t really matter anymore.

A parting gift – what alcohol abuse may leave users with long-term

As we mentioned above, many people only hear about how alcohol abuse can cause liver damage. But alcohol can do so much more damage than that and since this stuff is commonly used as a solvent (chemistry class anyone?!) that’s not really surprising. There is plenty of emerging research touting the positive effects of moderate alcohol consumption. However, if an individual continuously drinks to excess, there are serious long-term implications for that person’s memory, sex drive, and overall cognitive functions that can, and for more than 27,00 people a year does, end in death. So if alcohol use isn’t a problem for you, enjoy your glass of red wine (or micro-brew), but be aware of the effects; if alcohol abuse is an issue, you might as well keep everything operating as well as possible and stay away altogether.

Citations:

CDC Source: Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Adults: National Health Interview Survey, 2008, table 27.

Charles J. Holahan, Kathleen K. Schutte, Penny L. Brennan, Carole K. Holahan, Bernice S. Moos, Rudolf H. Moos (2010). Late life alcohol consumption and 20-year mortality. Alcohol Clinical & Experimental Research.

Addiction brain effects : Opiate addiction – Heroin, oxycontin and more

Okay, we’ve talked about crystal meth and cocaine and how they affect the brain during drug use. As I mentioned, both cocaine and meth interfere with the way the brain stores and cleans up important neurotransmitters, including, most importantly, Dopamine and Norepinephrine.

opiates-morphine & heroinThe class of drugs known as opiates, which includes morphine, heroin, codeine, and all their derivatives (including oxycontin), acts on the brain in a completely different manner. Since our goal at All About Addiction is to explain drug use and abuse as comprehensively as possible, let’s turn our attention to this opiate addiction next.

Heroin, morphine, oxycontin, vicodin and other opiates

While cocaine and crystal meth work by disrupting the normal functioning of molecules responsible for cleaning up released neurotransmitters, opiates work by activating actual receptors that naturally occuring neurotransmitters activate. Substance like this are known as agonists; they perform the same action (identically as, to a lesser, or greater extent) as a substance the body already manufactures.

In the case of morphine, heroin, and most other opiates, the most important receptors activated are knownOpiate Receptors as µ-opioid receptors. Activation of the µ-opioid receptors is associated with analgesia (suppression of pain), sedation, and euphoria, which makes sense given the relaxing, pleasure inducing effects of opiates.

Natural opioids (also called endogenous opioids), which include endorphins, are used by the body to relieve pain and increase relaxation, especially during periods of extreme stress. These are the chemicals that make sure we can function during accidents, like after breaking our leg…

Opioids and dopamine

Opioids also increase the amount of dopamine in the brain indirectly. As I mentioned in the earlier posts, dopamine is thought to be the reward indicator in the brain. Unlike crystal meth and cocaine, heroin and its relatives increase the activity of dopamine neurons by releasing the hold that other neurons (that use GABA) have on them. Think of this as the release of pressure on a hose spraying water on a lawn. When the pipe is pinched, only so much water can get through, but once the clasp is released, water can flow in greater quantity; this is essentially what opiates do.

Heroin addiction and long term opiate use

Like I said before, this doesn’t sound so bad, does it? All we’re talking about here is the increasing of the functioning of system that already exists in the brain. The problem isn’t so much in the process, the problem starts when this system gets activated for long periods of time.

HeroinHeroin addicts, and other frequent users of opiates complain about the extreme discomfort they feel when they stop using the drugs. This discomfort has been described as the worse case of the flu you could imagine. Doesn’t sound too appealing, does it? In fact, withdrawal symptoms associated with stopping opiate use are at least one of the main reasons many users return to the drug after trying to clean up. This in addition to all the other effects of the drug on the brain to make wanting to stop so much harder.

The reason for the pains and aches? Given the overactivation of its pain suppression system, the body not only reduces its own supply of opioids, but it also turns up the sensitivity on its pain receptors. Heroin users notice this as an increase in tolerance, but they compensate for it by simply using more. However, when they stop, they’re left with a body unable to suppress its own, hyper sensitive pain system. The results are more than uncomfortable, they’re simply excruciating…

Another common complaint of addicts is diarrhea. This, again, is simply the reversal of the constipation caused earlier by heroin’s actions on opioid receptors that are present in the peripheral system (outside the central nervous system).

I’ve heard addicts speak online about the slow recovery from opiate addiction and I want to dispell a myth here:

Opiates DO NOT stay in your system for weeks or months – The drug itself is gone from the body within days. The reason for the continued suffering is the slow adjustment of your brain and body back to the way things were before the drugs. Think of how long the tolerance took to develop… Now play the tape back in reverse. That’s what happening to you. You can help relieve the pain, but know that if you use anything in the opiate family, you’re making the process last much longer…

So, in summary: As usual, the actions of opiates on the body and brain are not all the severe, extreme, or inappropriate. Opiates are still used in medicine for pain suppression, not only because they work, but because the potential for abuse when used in this way are minimal to non-existent. However, as with all drugs, continued, chronic, abusive use of opiates will change the way your body functions in ways that will produce the exact opposite effects of those users like so much. This leaves people not only with possible addiction problems, but also with a terrifyingly uncomfortable return back to normal functioning.

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