Sara Bellum
February 11 2011

Every year on NIDA’s Drug Facts Chat Day, scientists chat with teens across the country to answer their questions about the science behind drug abuse and addiction.

Carmen asked a really important question, which shows that sometimes the simplest questions are the most intriguing: What is a drug?

There are many different types of drugs—from cough medicine to aspirin to prescription pain medications to street drugs like cocaine. In this post, SBB is dealing with illicit “drugs of abuse” like marijuana, heroin, and cocaine.

Put simply, drugs of abuse are chemicals that can deliver a destructive blow to the brains collection of neurons, circuits, and systems, all designed to work in harmony.

Drugs can actually reprogram the brain, so that every time a person takes the drug, the effect is a little weaker, which requires taking more and more of it to get the same feeling. Eventually, a person becomes dependent on the drug and compulsively uses it not so much to feel good but to keep from feeling bad. That is the “sneaky” part of addiction.

Someone addicted to drugs will feel nauseated when too much time passes before they can get the drug into their bodies. Eventually, so many additional brain systems become disrupted by repeated use that obtaining and using that drug becomes the sole focus of a user’s life, despite devastating consequences—and that’s the real nature of addiction.

So, next time somebody offers you a joint, a drink of alcohol, or even a cigarette, think of an army of molecules quietly sneaking into the deepest crevices of your brain and beginning to wreak havoc on the very essence of “you.”

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