What Drugs, Alcohol, and Addictive Behaviors do to the Brain


Brain Chemistry. The changes brought on by psychoactive drugs and addictive behaviors cause temporary and permanent changes in various parts of the brain that can be viewed. For many years, Dr. Daniel Amen, M.D., has studied these changes in brain function at his clinic in Fairfield, California, using SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) scans of the brain.

Dr. G. Amen, M.D., Amen Clinic for Behavioral Medicine. SPECT studies are very sophisticated nuclear medicine studies that look at blood flow and metabolic activity in your brain. How your brain works as opposed to a CAT (Computerized Axial Tomography) scan or MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). A lot of people have heard of those. Those are anatomy studies.

YouTube video:

Normal Brain: Top View. When the brain is functioning normally, there is an even distribution of function throughout the brain.

Normal Brain: Bottom View. When drugs are used, many parts of the brain become inactive, or occasionally overactive.

Methamphetamine Abuse. This is a person that has a serious methamphetamine abuse for eight years and what we see here are these multiple holes, or multiple areas of discrete areas of decreased activity across the cortical surface of the brain.

Heroin Abuse. What we’re looking at are not really holes, brain tissue, if we took the brain out it wouldn’t look mothy like the picture looks. What we’re seeing is dramatic decreased function of the brain.

Alcohol Abuse. And what we see with alcohol is someone who’s been abusing alcohol for about 20 years. What we see is this dramatic overall shutdown or decreased areas of activity across the brain.

Marijuana Abuse. This is my classic marijuana picture. This is someone who had been abusing fairly heavily for about 12 years and what we see is this incredible suppression of activity in the temporal lobe region of the brain on both sides, which did give him significant problems with his memory and significant problems with motivation.

Alzheimer’s Disease. Mental illnesses, brain diseases, and behavioral dysfunctions, including schizophrenia, Alzhemeir’s Disease, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), can be viewed in the SPECT scan.

The correlation between ADD and addiction is huge. In fact, they did a study out of Harvard that looked at the incidences of substance abuse and untreated ADD in adults and they found that it was 52%, which is 8 or 10 times the national average.

Those with ADD as well as mental illnesses such as depression, panic disorder, borderline personality disorder, or antisocial personality disorder have a chemical brain imbalance [chemical imbalance = nutrient deficiency] and will sometimes use drugs for self-medication.

The most common question people ask me is, “Well, if you use [drugs, alcohol] and you stop using, what happens to your brain?”

Cocaine, alcohol during use and abstention. For some people, their brain slowly over time seems to pick up function but it depends on what you use, how long you’ve used, how vulnerable your brain is because we’ve seen some brains are very hard to abuse and some brains are very susceptible to damage.


“SPECT studies are very sophisticated nuclear medicine studies that look at blood flow and metabolic activity in your brain.”

Metabolic: 1. Relating to the process in which food is changed into energy, new cells, and waste products in plants and animals, 2. Of or relating to metabolism; "metabolic rate", 3. Undergoing metamorphosis. Greek metabolikos, changeable, from metabol?.

Metabolism: The chemical processes by which cells produce the substances and energy needed to sustain life. As part of metabolism, organic compounds are broken down to provide heat and energy in the process called catabolism. Simpler molecules are also used to build more complex compounds like proteins for growth and repair of tissues as part of anabolism. Many metabolic processes are brought about by the action of enzymes. The overall speed at which an organism carries out its metabolic processes is termed its metabolic rate (or, when the organism is at rest, its basal metabolic rate). Birds, for example, have a high metabolic rate, since they are warm-blooded, and their usual method of locomotion, flight, requires large amounts of energy. Accordingly, birds usually need large amounts of high-quality, energy-rich foods such as seeds or meat, which they must eat frequently. See more at cellular respiration.

Brain Scan of Chronic Pain

An illustration shows differences in the brain between a healthy individual and one suffering chronic pain. The colors illustrate how much activation (red-yellow) or deactivation (dark/light blue) was found at each location. Brain scans of people in chronic pain show a state of constant activity in areas that should be at rest, researchers said on Tuesday, a finding that could help explain why pain patients have higher rates of depression, anxiety and other disorders. Northwestern University/Handout.

Recommended Reading

End Your Addiction Now: The Proven Nutritional Supplement Program That Can Set You Free. Using this groundbreaking, comprehensive recovery program, readers can reduce or eliminate their addictions by taking over-the-counter nutritional supplements that restore the proper balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. Readers can learn how to reduce or eliminate drug and alcohol cravings, detoxify, and correct secondary nutritional imbalances to ensure long-term results.

About the Author
Charles Gant, M.D., Ph.D., is a member of the American Academy of Psychiatrists in Addiction and Alcoholism and lives in Syracuse, New York.

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