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Effects of Drugs to the Nervous System

People take drugs to change the way they feel. Typically, drugs are taken to make the individual feel better or to forget their problems temporarily. Although using drugs can feel good for a short time, using these substances does not make life’s problems go away. On the contrary, using drugs will make life worse in the long run. Drugs that change the way you feel are affecting your mind in damaging ways that may end up being permanent due to their effects on the nervous system.

Drugs and the Nervous System

Drugs of abuse affect the nervous system, especially the brain. It is inside of the brain where changes occur that bring about the short-term pleasurable effects of drug use. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse1, these changes are typically experienced as an increase in certain neurotransmitters, most commonly dopamine, but also including noradrenaline, serotonin, and norepinephrine. An increase in one or more of these neurotransmitters is commonly experienced as feelings of euphoria. With the increase in certain neurotransmitters, the reward pathways in the brain are also affected. Continued drug use over time can halt the natural production of these neurotransmitters and change the reward pathways so drastically that in many cases, the person can no longer feel pleasure without the use of harmful substances. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics2, about 8% of the U.S. population uses drugs in a given month. Damage to the brain and nervous system from drug use may be permanent. With the majority of drug users falling in the 18 – 24-year-old range2, the potential for permanent nervous system damage from drug use is likely to affect these individuals for decades, placing a substantial burden on the health care system.

Different Types of Drugs that Affect the Nervous System

Different drugs have different effects on the nervous system, with most having either stimulating or depressing effects. Although the initial effects of drug use typically occur in the brain, the brain controls the rest of the body’s processes. Drugs can speed up or slow down the rhythm of the heart, cause blood vessels to contract or relax, increase or decrease body temperature, stimulate or decrease glandular production, and open or close airways. By affecting the nervous system, drugs also affect many of the body’s other systems, sometimes resulting in acute or immediate damage and the potential for death.

Effects of Drugs that Depress the Nervous System

Drugs such as alcohol, barbiturates, GHB, sedatives, inhalants, opiates, and narcotic pain relievers can depress the nervous system. These drugs affect neurotransmitters that slow down activity in the brain. Lack of coordination, slurred speech, sleepiness, and dizziness can occur. With long-term use, those who abuse these drugs can have memory problems, confusion, and difficulty concentrating. These drugs produce a risk of death due to decreased heart rate and respiration, potentially dangerous drop in blood pressure, and cause convulsions, coma, or death.

Effects of Drugs that Stimulate the Nervous System

Drugs that stimulate the nervous system include cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamine, bath salts, and ecstasy. These drugs increase heart rate and respiration while making users feel more energetic. Long-term or permanent damage to the brain can affect learning and memory. Increase in heart rate and blood pressure can lead to a heart attack or stroke. The potential for an increase in body temperature can cause a fatal fever. As with depressant drugs, stimulant drugs can also result in convulsion, coma, or death.

Why It Is Important to Get Help to Overcome Drug Use, Abuse, and Addiction

Each year, approximately 1.7 million emergency department visits are due to drug use, misuse, or abuse2. Stopping drug use can reduce the risk of negative consequences of drug use and may even reverse some damage that has occurred in the body. However, withdrawal from drugs can be uncomfortable to painful to downright dangerous, depending on the drug. It is important to seek help, preferably through an inpatient treatment provider, to help you to go through the withdrawal process and receive treatment for drug use, abuse, or addiction. Inpatient help can allow you time to focus on your recovery without concern over outside distractions so you can establish better-coping skills and patterns for living a life free from the grip of drugs.


  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse; Drugs and the Brain
  2. Bureau of Justice Statistics; Drug and Crime Facts

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