how do drugs affect neurotransmitters

Illegal and legal drugs work on the brain in a variety of ways. One of the ways they work is they change the way that neurotransmitters work in the brain, which changes the user’s emotions and, ultimately, the way they think and behave. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that are sent between brain cells that relay information. They are not permanent parts of the physical brain like brain cells. Often the brain reabsorbs neurotransmitters. 

We at Coastal Detox are committed to not only educating our patients on the effects of substances but also educating the general public in hopes that people will be able to be better prepared for their fight against the drug addiction epidemic.

What Do Neurons Do?

They send messages through chemicals released from the synapses in the brain. Brain cells (also known as neurons) do not touch each other. The synapse is the part of the neuron that is closest to the other neuron. Neurotransmitters can also signal the brain cells do certain things, producing feelings like anger, joy, anxiety, and in people with substance abuse disorder, substance cravings. 

Drugs such as heroin, Zoloft, alcohol, and other substances affect the neurotransmitters in the brain, producing a pleasurable high and often undesirable side effects like depression. In some cases, they produce psychosis, and, ultimately, addiction.      

Neurotransmitters also help the neurons regulate:

  • Mood
  • Coordination
  • Breathing 
  • Heart rate
  • Ability to learn
  • Emotions
  • Physical sensations 

And almost anything else that goes on in the body and the brain. 

Do Brain Cells Affect Neurotransmitters?

When someone uses a substance such as ketamine, opioid-like oxycodone, alcohol, or methamphetamines, the effect is determined by which neurotransmitters they affect. Most of these substances bind to the neurotransmitters directly. Many substances affect multiple neurotransmitters at once. There are dozens of neurotransmitters that scientists have identified, and our understanding of how the brain and neurotransmitters work and their different parts is continually growing.

What is Dopamine?

Dopamine is used by the body to regulate:

  • Learning
  • Motivation
  • Kidney function
  • Sleep
  • Mood
  • Aggression
  • Anger
  • Happiness
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness 
  • Attention
  • Pain processing
  • Control of nausea and vomiting

Dopamine is one of the most famous neurotransmitters.

How Do Substances Affect Neurotransmitters?

Drugs like methamphetamine, heroin, prescription opioids, alcohol, and many more affect the brain’s use and output of neurotransmitters. Some substances speed up the production of neurotransmitters, others slow down productions, and some even mimic neurotransmitters. The way that the neurotransmitters speed up or slow down the production of other neurotransmitters is that they bind to or mimic other neurotransmitters in a way that sends a signal to the brain cell to tell that brain cell to produce more or less of another neurotransmitter.

What Will Your Brain Do If You Stop Taking Substances?

Depending on the substance and length of abuse, it can take days to years to regain normal neurotransmitter production in your brain. 

Some substances, like heroin, affect the brain in the same way that a natural neurotransmitter would and stimulate the neuron it bonds to make it produce other neurotransmitters like dopamine. All substances, both legal and illegal, change the way that the brain operates.

For example: if someone takes a drug like methamphetamine (also known as meth or ice), the brain will stop producing some of its own neurotransmitters (dopamine). After taking meth in high doses for an extended period of time, dopamine production can severely slow down the brain’s natural production for up to 4 years. 

Is Dopamine the Only Thing That Causes Addiction?

While dopamine and its production in the brain are important to how an addiction is formed, progresses, and how sobriety can be found it is not the only element in the process. Some scientists now think that dopamine has more to do with reinforcement than reward. However, dopamine is still is thought to help produce a pleasurable effect.

Can I Get Dopamine Supplements?

There is no over the counter supplement version of dopamine. However, there is a prescription version known as Inotropic. This medication is only available by a doctor’s prescription. 

Inotropic can have serious side effects even when a doctor is closely monitoring the patient. Online sources of Inotropic and other prescription dopamine products are not advised and are often unregulated. This means that they might be contaminated or even a different substance than advertised. There is no way to verify what you are buying. 

Incorrect usage of synthetic dopamine can cause:

  • Gangrene in extremities like fingers from lack of blood flow. This can lead to tissue death, amputation of a limb and possibly death
  • Increased eye pressure. Increased eye pressure can sometimes cause loss of vision
  • Increased or decreased blood pressure
  • Abnormal heart rhythm. This can cause a heart attack and/or stroke

What is Serotonin? 

The second most famous chemical in the brain is serotonin. There is some debate among scientists about whether serotonin is a neurotransmitter or a hormone. Hormones, like neurotransmitters, are also signals that the brain cells produce to coordinate their behavior with each other and with the body in general. Like dopamine, serotonin has a huge effect on the brain, serotonin effects:

  • Moods including
  • Aggression
  • Anger
  • Happiness
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness 
  • Confusion
  • Self-esteem
  • Bone density
  • Blood clotting abilities
  • Control nausea and vomiting

In other words, serotonin affects a lot of the same cells in the same ways that dopamine does as well as some others. The brain is very complicated. Similar does not mean the same. 

What are the Main Substances That Interact With Neurotransmitters?

There are seven types of drugs, and they interact with neurotransmitters in different ways.

Central Nervous System (CNC) Depressants

Also simply known as depressants, these drugs include:

  • Alcohol
  • Barbiturates (Amytal, Nembutal, Seconal, Fiorina, Butisol) are commonly abused barbiturates. Most barbiturates either started out or are still prescription drugs that are being abused or otherwise used incorrectly
  • Benzodiazepines (Xanax, quazepam, alprazolam) 
  • Opioids (morphine, fentanyl, oxycodone, Vicodin)  

These are just a few examples of depressant substances. Most of these substances are commonly abused, especially opioids. These substances depress the brain cell’s actives causing relaxation, sleepiness, euphoria, increased confidence, mood swings, vomiting and/or nausea, unconsciousness, coma, and sometimes death. Depressants work by increasing the activity of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This reduces brain activity and makes the heart and other organs slow down.

Central Nervous System (CNS) Stimulants

CNS Stimulants vs. Depressants

Stimulants have the opposite effect of depressants. They increase alertness, attention, and energy. They increase the amount of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. The feeling that the abuser of stimulants gets is an energetic, euphoric rush. Some users of stimulants have been known to stay awake for days at a time.

Some examples of stimulants are:

  • Adderall
  • Ritalin
  • Concerta
  • Cocaine
  • Crack cocaine
  • Methamphetamine (also known as meth)


Hallucinogens produce varying effects on a person. Often people hallucinate or see, hear, and touch things that are not there. The effects of hallucinogens vary according to the person, their mood, what other substances they are taking, and other factors. In other words, it is hard to tell how a hallucinogen will affect any particular person at any particular time. Having a bad reaction to a hallucination is known as a ‘bad trip’. 

Cross Tolerance in Hallucinogens

Cross tolerance is when a person has a tolerance to one substance and it heightens the tolerance to another substance at the same time. Tolerance is when someone needs to take more of the substance, they are abusing to get the same pleasurable effects. One example of cross-tolerance is that many hallucinogens such as peyote and Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) may produce a tolerance to each other as well as a tolerance to psilocybin, also known as magic mushrooms.

How Do Psychedelic Substances Disrupt Neurotransmitters in the Brain?

Mood altering drugs like LSD heighten serotonin levels significantly. All hallucinogens stimulate serotonin production. Serotonin is another famous neurotransmitter. In particular, they stimulate 2A receptors. This can cause the neurons to fall out of sync with each other to some degree.  

Dissociative Anesthetics

Dissociative anesthetics inhibit the sensation of pain and can cause the user to feel dissociated or disconnected from the world around them and/or themselves. People often make bad decisions because their brain cells are disturbed by drugs. 

Ketamine Use and How It Affects Neurotransmitters

One of the drugs, ketamine, has been used as an anesthetic for people undergoing surgery and has also used in veterinary practices. Ketamine is also used as an antidepressant for people with hard to treat depression. It affects the GABA, glutamine, and serotonin neurotransmitters. It causes a rapid surge in both glutamine and GABA. Ketamine can also affect a person 24 hours after they take it. This means that a ketamine high is long-lasting. Some of the effects of ketamine when used at too high of a dose, which is easy as it is so strong.

Ketamine abuse can cause:

  • Cardiac arrest
  • ketamine cystitis- damage to the bladder that can lead to pain and frequent urination. 
  • Psychosis- the effects of which can last after you stop using ketamine

Narcotic Analgesics or Opioids Effect on Neurotransmitters

These drugs stimulate dopamine production in the brain and prevent dopamine from being reabsorbed by the brain, causing an extremely pleasurable experience. Narcotic analgesics are drugs like heroin, opium, methadone, and heroin. Opioids bind to specialized opioid receptors in the brain and physically change the brain.

Opioids Produce Dopamine

Opioids are very commonly abused because they also make the brain produce more dopamine and stop it from being reabsorbed by the brain. Several opioids have medical uses, including fentanyl and methadone. 

Fentanyl is used in a medical setting for people who are expecting extreme pain like late-stage cancer patients. Not only is methadone used to taper people off other opioids medically, but methadone, although it is an often abused opioid, is also used to help wean people off other opioids such as heroin as well as alcohol. 

Inhalants Effect on Neurotransmitters

Most inhalants slow down the brain, and the effect that people notice is similar to alcohol, such as slurred speech, euphoria, lack of coordination, and dizziness. Inhalants are, like the name suggests, drugs that are generally inhaled rather than snorted, injected, or taken orally. Some common inhalants are paint thinner, hair spray, nitrates (prescription medication for chest pain). 

Cannabis (Marijuana) and It’s Effect on Neurotransmitters

Cannabis is the scientific name for marijuana. Cannabis use to thought to permanently change the chemical and physical makeup of the brain. The full effects of cannabis are widely disputed.

Alcohol and It’s Effect on Neurotransmitters

Alcohol is one of the most abused substances in the world. 61 million people in the United States abuse alcohol by binge drinking, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 16 million people reported to be heavy alcohol uses, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as well.

Why is Alcohol Addiction Hard to Treat?

Alcohol substance abuse can be hard to treat because part of the treatment plan for continued sobriety is avoiding places where you used to abuse the substance. For some people, the presence of alcohol alone could trigger the person with substance abuse at the beginning of a person’s road to recovery to crave alcohol. This makes it hard if not nearly impossible for someone to stop abusing alcohol on their own if they have an addiction. It is very important to get clinical help for any substance abuse problem you might have, including alcohol abuse.  

How Alcohol Affects Equilibrium in the Brain

The brain tries to maintain a certain balance or equilibrium in its neurotransmitters. Substances like alcohol shift the brain’s equilibrium by making the brain give out certain neurotransmitters like GABA. Over a long period of time, the brain starts to try to combat this slow down by giving out neurotransmitters such as glutamate to try to speed itself back up and put itself back in a healthy equilibrium. This does not protect the brain very much from the negative effects of alcohol. 

Does Alcohol Create Dopamine?

Another reason that alcohol is so addictive is that it stimulates the production of dopamine from the brain cells at a higher rate than the brain cells would naturally produce dopamine on their own. Many substances abused provide a change in dopamine levels. Some prevent the brain from reabsorbing dopamine. 

What is Naltrexone, and Can It Help Reduce Alcohol Cravings?

Alcohol dependence can be eased with naltrexone. Naltrexone helps people gain their sobriety by helping suppress their urge to consume alcohol. Naltrexone is also used in medical tapering for opioid dependence. Methadone, a well-known opioid that is often abused, is also used to help people taper off alcohol.

There is No Miracle Cure to Addiction

As you are starting your road to sobriety, please do not be tempted to take quick fixes or miracle “cures” of any sort. These are dangerous. Unless something is prescribed or recommended by a licensed medical professional that specializes in addiction treatment, it is important not to do it. The brain is very complex, and something that might seem common sense on the surface might actually be very, very bad for you. It could even be deadly.

Professional Care is Important During Detoxification

These symptoms are another reason that it is important to have professional care while you are going through detoxification for alcohol abuse. Detox can be safe, but it is important to have professional care. The brain reacts like this because the neurotransmitters it was using to try to combat the effects of the alcohol have not yet had time to readjust themselves and that can be hard for the brain to deal with.

Can Abusing Substance For Too Long Cause Permanent Damage?

Abusing substances for a long period of time has very negative consequences for the user’s brain and body. The human body was not meant to use these substances at this level for very long, if at all. 

However, many effects of these substances can be reversed over a long period of time. These positive changes are called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is when the brain makes new connections and pathways around the damaged parts of the brain. Thanks to neuroplasticity, the brain will be able to enjoy things that it used to enjoy before the substance abuse disorder developed. 

How Can I Recover?

There is no quick fix for addiction recovery. However, your road to recovery will become valuable to you. You will form new, strong friendships. Your family will start to want to spend time with you. And you will not have to constantly worry about where you are going to get your next dose of substances from or be afraid of the violence that is usually part of that world. You will get your life back. 

When you are ready for help for your substance use disorder, please contact us.