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This Is How Drugs Work In Your Brain

Hello dopamine, my old friend.

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Everybody knows that drugs are both pleasurable and often quite addictive – but how do these two effects actually come about?

Katie Nesling / Thinkstock

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays many roles in our brains. Neurotransmitters pass information from one of your brain cells to the next through the tiny gap in between them.

Dopamine is most well known as a "pleasure chemical", but also has a part in controlling attention and movement among other things.

You experience a dopamine spike when you kiss someone for the first time, or go through another novel experience, and it makes you crave more. But this dopamine spike doesn't equate exactly to a spike in pleasure or motivation. Instead, it's really about predicting rewards.

While dopamine doesn't cause all of the effects you feel when you take drugs, it does play a big role in drug addiction.

This is how dopamine behaves in your brain without drugs.

Orange dots are dopamine. They start off in the neuron at the top of the image before it receives a signal (the yellow flash) to release them into the gap between the brain cells. They then travel across the gap and bind to the purple dopamine receptors at the other neuron. Once they've begun the process again by triggering a signal in the second neuron, they can go back to their starting point.

And this is what happens when you take opiates.

Dark triangles represent the opiates, found in drugs like heroin. Opiates bind to the first neuron and make it release a bigger amount of dopamine than usual.

Excessive dopamine leads to a brief, intense feeling of euphoria – a rush – followed by feeling contented.

This is what happens when you take amphetamines.

Amphetamines (dark dots) mimic dopamine. They bind to dopamine receptors (purple) and trigger the same response as dopamine would. But the amphetamines then make it harder for dopamine to re-enter the first neuron, so more dopamine than usual is left in the gap between the brain cells.

This high concentration of dopamine leads to feelings of euphoria. Another neurotransmitter called norepinephrine is thought to cause the feelings of alertness you get with amphetamines.

But eventually dopamine levels in the brain are depleted. When a regular amphetamine user stops taking the drugs it can take weeks for their dopamine levels to return to normal, making you feel terrible.

And when you take cocaine.

Cocaine (dark shapes) prevents the re-uptake of dopamine into the first neuron, so more of it stays in the gap. There it ends up stimulating the second neuron more and increasing the reward, making you feel happy and even euphoric.

As well as this, when you drink alcohol at the same time as taking cocaine, your liver makes a molecule called cocaethylene. This binds to the first neuron even better than cocaine alone, making the effect more extreme.