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This is your Brain on Drugs

by Dr. Kathie F. Nunley

The rumor among adolescents is that some drugs are safe. This is particularly the perception for one of the most popular teen drugs known as Ecstasy. Ecstasy as well cocaine, alcohol,crack and even marijuana can do serious lifelong damage to the brain and subsequently to one's quality of life.

The lifelong factor results from the brain's amazing ability to overcompensate and repair itself. The brain seeks "sameness", a condition known as homeostasis. When things are in balance,
the status quo is met, and the brain repair system appears content. But when things get out of balance, the repair department comes to life and reacts quickly.

Drugs work in the brain by mimicking natural chemicals, called neurotransmitters. By imitating these chemicals the drugs can override the system and keep pleasure centers and other regions active much longer than normal. But the brain will eventually try to correct this error. Some brains respond to the imbalance quicker than others.

The first line of defense in the brain's repair department is to reduce the amount of chemical that the brain produces on it's own. That reduction leads to the drug user's perception of tolerance. Since the brain has compensated for the increase of artificial chemical by reducing production of natural chemical the drug effect is reduced and the user has to increase the amount used.

The second line of defense is for the brain to reduce receptor sites, or locations on nerve cells that chemicals can attach to. If the chemicals can't attach, they can't work. Sometimes this
removal can be permanent.

Now come the "lifelong damage" scenario. Once natural chemical production is reduced and receptor sites are removed, the user has little hope for speedy or even successful withdrawal.
The drug user who wants to quit the drug use is left with a brain that no longer works correctly. There is no restore program currently available that will set the brain back to its original condition of chemical levels and receptor sites. The user has to just wait it out and hope the brain will heal itself.

Sometimes it does. Sometimes, it doesn't.

(originally written in 2003, this article may be used in any non-profit print publication so long as it is used in its entirety including the bottom author credit paragraph).

Kathie F. Nunley is an educational psychologist, author, researcher and speaker living in southern New Hampshire. Developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction, Dr. Nunley has authored several books and articles on teaching in mixed-ability classrooms and other problems facing today's teachers. Full references and additional teaching and parental tips are available at: http://Help4Teachers.com Email her:
Kathie (at) brains.org

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