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Understanding Neurotransmitters and Substance Abuse

Drugs like heroin have never gotten anyone high. Nor have people achieved euphoric effects from smoking pot or snorting cocaine. In fact, it is not drugs directly that causes people to “get high.” Instead, it is the effect that certain substances have on neurotransmitters that causes feelings of relaxation, excitement, pleasure and/or euphoria. Neurotransmitters are chemical substances that the body uses to send signals and accomplish certain tasks. Manipulating neurotransmitters can have potent and dangerous effects, so understanding the relationship between drugs and neurotransmitters is essential to developing an understanding of what really goes on in the brains of drug abusers and addicts.

A Simplified Explanation of Nerve Cells

Nerve cells are responsible for nearly all of the observations, communication and action that occurs in the brain and central nervous system – especially where related to the process of substance abuse and addiction. Nerve cells receive signals – such as a drug like heroin – and respond by releasing a specific neurotransmitter. Nearly all drugs work by impeding, enhancing or otherwise interfering with the natural processes of neurotransmitters, resulting in feelings of euphoria and other desirable effects of drug use.

Different drugs cause interruptions in the processing of different neurotransmitters:


The big grand-daddy of drug abuse, dopamine plays a role in substance abuse of nearly all types, but most notably cocaine, meth and opiates. Dopamine is responsible for the well-known “reward” processes in the brain and when stimulated consistently can lead to powerful drug addictions.


Endorphins act specifically as neurotransmitters for opiate-based drugs like heroin, morphine, Oxycontin, Fentanyl and many other prescription pain medications. Some consider opiates to be the most powerful type of drug addiction known, largely due to the potent effect of the neurotransmitters called endorphins.

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Serotonin is a neurotransmitter primarily associated with hallucinogenic drugs like MDMA or ecstasy, LSD, psilopsybin mushrooms, philosophers stones, etc. Serotonin famously affects sexual desire and sleep during active drug use, but upon cessation can cause significant disruptions in the normal healthy functioning of both.


This neurotransmitter is associated with the class of drugs known on the street as “speed,” including famous street drugs like black beauties and meth cooked up from pharmaceutical drugs. Cocaine also interferes with the normal functioning of norepinephrine, which affects sensory processing and can cause anxiety, among other effects.


Affecting cognitive abilities both long and short term, anandamide is a neurotransmitter exclusively associated with use of marijuana and hashish. This neurotransmitter more specifically affects memory, helping to explain memory loss or impairment associated with chronic marijuana use.


Glutamate – a powerful and potentially dangerous neurotransmitter when released in large amounts – is triggered by use of potent substances like ketamine or Special K, PCP or angel dust, and alcohol. Glutamate influences the brain and central nervous system in a number of important ways, including fine and gross motor skills and learning functions.

Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid

Drugs like sedatives and tranquilizers stimulate and interfere with processes related to GABA function. This particular neurotransmitter can have dangerous effects due to its sedative action and CNS-repressing behavior.

When it comes to neurotransmitters, it’s important to understand how drugs can affect the brain’s natural chemical messaging, relay and action system. Interfering with this system leads to chronic problems related to addiction, and because substance abuse changes nerve cells, it also forever changes the overall wiring in the brain. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know that these changes can literally and irreversibly alter the person you are and the person you will become. Don’t let drugs and their effects on neurotransmitters decide your future; take back control of your life now.


About The Contributor
The editorial staff of Recovery First is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More