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Brain Power: Grades 2-3


Different drugs have various effects on the body. People are motivated to take drugs because of the feeling of euphoria they experience as the drugs change the way the brain normally works. Some of the changes that happen in the brain following drug use are short-term, while other changes can last a long time.

Prolonged drug use can change the brain so that addiction results. Addiction is a disease caused by changes in the structure and functioning of the brain. Addiction is characterized by:

  • A strong compulsion or drive to use drugs despite negative consequences (someone keeps using drugs even though he or she is having problems);
  • Loss of control over amount of the drug used (using more than he or she plans) and over drug-related behavior (someone does or says things he or she would not ordinarily do);
  • Intense craving for the drug when it is not available. This craving is due to changes in the brain. Once a person is addicted, he or she must have the drug just to keep from feeling bad. This is because drugs can cause changes in the functioning of neurotransmitters in the brain.

When a person stops using a drug, it takes a while for the brain to get back to normal. During that time, the person may feel bad and have intense craving for the drug. Research in animals and some humans is beginning to suggest that some drugs may cause changes that are permanent. Addiction is considered a disease because the drugs have changed the normal functioning of the brain. Addiction can be successfully treated. However, the best way to avoid addiction is to never start using drugs.


Cocaine is a stimulant made from the leaf of the coca plant. Cocaine speeds up activity in the brain and the spinal cord, causing an increase in blood pressure and heart rate and a decrease in the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart. When someone snorts, injects, or smokes cocaine, it travels to the brain very quickly. It reaches all areas of the brain but has its greatest effects in the front part of the cerebral cortex and on part of the limbic system.

Cocaine affects parts of the brain that control movement, motivation, and the reinforcement of rewarding behaviors. Neurons in these brain circuits communicate using the neurotransmitter dopamine; once a signal has been carried to the next neuron, dopamine is usually recycled from the synapse back into the neuron that released it; but cocaine blocks dopamine's recycling, leaving too much dopamine in the synapse. The excess dopamine is what causes the increased motor activity seen with higher doses; also, surges of dopamine in the brain’s reward circuit act as teaching signals to strongly reinforce the act of taking the drug.

After a person uses cocaine for a while, the brain tries to compensate for the excess dopamine, and the normal processes that take place are disrupted. The brain will no longer function normally without cocaine.


Marijuana is the dried leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant. More than 400 chemicals can be found in the average cannabis plant. The active ingredient in marijuana that produces changes in brain messages is called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The brain has receptors for a specific chemical, anandamide, which is naturally produced by the brain. THC is able to attach to and activate these same receptors. These receptors are called THC receptors rather than anandamide receptors because scientists knew that THC attaches to these receptors long before anandamide was discovered.

Scientists know less about how marijuana affects the nervous system than they do about other drugs. However, scientists know that some areas of the brain have a lot of THC receptors, while other areas have very few or none. When a person uses marijuana, the chemicals in the drug travel through the bloodstream and attach to the THC receptors, activating them and interfering with normal neurotransmission.

The areas of the brain with the most THC receptors are the cerebellum, the cerebral cortex, and the limbic system. This is why marijuana affects thinking, problem solving, sensory perception, movement, balance, and memory.


Alcohol is found in beer, wine, and spirits, e.g., gin, vodka, or whiskey. It affects the brain and almost every other organ in the body. The parts of the brain affected by alcohol are the cerebral cortex, limbic system, and brain stem. Alcohol interferes with messages carried by many neurotransmitters in the brain. Because these neurotransmitters are found throughout the brain, alcohol affects many functions, including thinking, coordination, and emotions.

If a person becomes dependent on alcohol, he or she might be diagnosed with the disease known as alcoholism. Alcoholism can be life-threatening. The long-term use of alcohol results in the depletion of certain vitamins and minerals in the body. These deficiencies can result in diseases like Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a disease that affects the short-term memory and, in some cases, can result in a permanent loss of memory.


Nicotine comes from tobacco leaves and is found in all tobacco products—cigarettes, cigars, pipe and chewing tobacco, and snuff. Nicotine acts on the central and peripheral nervous systems. It also causes an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration.

Nicotine is shaped like the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is involved in movement, breathing, heart rate, learning, and memory. When nicotine gets into the brain, it hooks onto the place where acetylcholine would normally go and overexcites the brain.

Nicotine also affects the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine surges in the reward circuit are what get people to repeat pleasurable behaviors (reinforcement) and thus cause smokers to want to keep smoking.

Drug Effects on the Brain and Body Parts of the Brain Affected
  1. Increase in blood pressure and heart rate
  2. Change in emotional behavior
  3. Impaired thinking and decision making
  1. Brain stem
  2. Limbic system
  3. Cerebral cortex
  1. Short-term memory loss
  2. Impaired thinking and problem solving
  3. Impaired movement
  1. Limbic system
  2. Cerebral cortex
  3. Cerebellum
  1. Impaired thinking and problem solving
  2. Change in emotional behavior
  3. Impaired coordination
  1. Cerebral cortex
  2. Limbic system
  3. Cerebellum
  1. Increase in respiration rate and blood pressure
  2. Increases the amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine present in synapses
  1. Brain stem
  2. Limbic system

This page was last updated September 2012

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NIDA. (2012, September 1). Brain Power: Grades 2-3. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/brain-power/brain-power-grades-2-3

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