This is Your Brain on Drugs


Cocaine, marijuana and crystal meth are all types of illegal drugs that have been proven to alter and affect the human brain. However, it may come as a shock to some that even legal drugs such as nicotine and alcohol can cause just as much damage. Dr. Stephen Dewey, a neuroscientist at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, came to St. Joseph’s College to discuss the adverse effects these types of drugs have on the brains of addicts.

A common factor of these drugs is that they increase the amount of dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that causes euphoria, or a state of heightened happiness. One commonly popular drug among college-age students, marijuana, can have some very dangerous effects on the brain. When marijuana is smoked, it affects a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. “The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that controls hormones,” said Dr. Dewey. “When a drug like marijuana is smoked, it alters hormone regulation. So for a teenager who smokes marijuana, it can mess up his hormone regulation and, in some cases, stop the onset of puberty indefinitely.”

Another type of popular drug among students that can cause long-term damage to the brain is alcohol. Side effects most commonly attributed to alcohol consumption include loss of balance and coordination as well as slurred speech. This is because when alcohol is consumed it temporarily shuts off the part of the brain that controls these functions: the cerebellum.

“What alcohol does to the brain isn’t necessarily the disturbing part,” said Dr. Dewey. “What is disturbing is that a test was conducted in which the brain of a 24-year-old male was scanned while he was intoxicated. We saw low activity in his cerebellum due to the alcohol, but it wasn’t until five days later that it returned to normal.” This means that after a night of partying, a student’s brain will not be 100 percent back to normal until five days afterward.

Dr. Dewey wrapped up his presentation with one last drug that has been affecting more and more people on Long Island within the past few years: heroin. The widespread usage of heroin can absolutely be attributed to the fact that it is an extremely powerful drug, yet costs relatively little in relation to other drugs. However, the damage it does to the brain is nothing short of horrific. “Heroin’s main damage to the brain is that it dissolves brain anatomy,” Dr. Dewey said. “It dissolves myelin, which is a white sheet that helps protect nerves in the brain. When heroin is used, it dissolves the myelin and can lead to such complications as respiratory failure.”

For more information about other drugs that affect the brain or research and treatments for drug addiction, please visit Dr. Stephen Dewey’s website,


By Cody Prawicka


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