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NIDA. (2010, March 16). Brain Awareness Week: Smart Brains, Sneaky Drugs . Retrieved from

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Sara Bellum
March 16 2010
Illustration of doctor listening to a brain with a stethoscope
Image Courtsey of Deadstar 2.0

Here at NIDA, we can't learn enough about the brain. Other scientists are brain-obsessed too-there's even a Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to spread the word about the progress and benefits of brain research. This week, people all over the world will take some time to learn about the complex and beautiful brain. So, in the spirit of the week, here's some "brain bits."

Everyone knows that your brain helps you learn-it stores information and helps you put different pieces together to draw conclusions about all sorts of things: from math problems to history essay questions to whether you like the taste of tomatoes.

The brain relies on a bunch of chemicals called neurotransmitters to get messages from one part of the brain to the other. It's pretty amazing how each neurotransmitter attaches to its own kind of receptor-like how a key fits into a lock. Messages zip through the brain on the right routes thanks to this intricate process.

But drugs can really mess up the brain's traffic patterns. The chemical structure of some drugs, like marijuana, imitates the structure of a natural neurotransmitter. In this way, drugs can "fool" receptors, lock onto them, and alter the activity of nerve cells.

The problem is, drugs don't work exactly the same way as the natural neurotransmitters they resemble. So a brain on drugs sends messages down wrong pathways throughout the brain. Marijuana, for example, can alter concentration and memory. Other drugs can literally reset what the brain needs to feel pleasure so that, without the drug, a person dependent on it feels hopeless and sad.

As you can see, the brain is a complex organ, worthy of its own week of honor. Learn more about your brain and the harmful effects of drugs from these resources:

Facts on Drugs: Brain & Addiction

Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction