NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse
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Real Teens Ask: What Is a Drug?

Real Teens Ask: What Is a Drug?

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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.”

Comments

This doesn't answer the question, "what is a drug?" C'mon NIDA, you can do better than that.

I have to agree with Ms. Future Drug Counselor. There is little fact in the above blog. Was it written by a teenager (meaning, 13 year old)? Using drugs to keep from feeling bad is not the "sneaky" part of addiction - it's the ADDICTED part of addiction. The "sneaky" part of addiction is the lying, stealing, cheating, thieving, doing-what-ever-you-have-to-for-one-more stuff. "Someone addicted to drugs will feel nauseated when too much time passes before they can get the drug into their bodies" - NOT TRUE (completely). Someone will go into withdrawal if too much time passes, which - depending on the addictive substance - may cause nausea. For example, if you're a heroin addict, you can become nauseated. But if you're a pothead or a crackhead, you'll experience different withdrawal symptoms than just nausea. And the REAL nature of addiction is not when it becomes the sole focus of an addict's life. The REAL nature of addiction is the destructive thought patterns that lead one to addictive substances in the first place. Saying that the real nature of addiction is use despite negative consequences is like saying it's not addiction if there are no negative consequences. It's like saying if you can stop the negative consequences then you're not addicted anymore. Not true. One has to change these thinking patterns that lead them to addictive substances in the first place in order to recover from addiction. And at no point in time can you become unaddicted to a substance you were once addicted to. Once an addict, always an addict. You can't go back.

Really, you should do your research before you post incorrect information that may or may not defer a teen from using and/or save their life. Bad form.

The difficulty of course is that many teenagers just want to experience what the fuss is about.

i fear that the more we tell kids that "Cocaine is bad" the more inclined they are to try it.

Sataris
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I agree with 'Sataris' its curiosity that drives kids to try drugs.

Drugs are very useful if the prescribed subscription are truly followed. Drugs are prescribed doctors to medicate us. Drugs should not be abused cause it may destroy our brain cells.

The new generation is going to hell using many type of drugs. I am very worried about my kids what they gonna do. [commercial link removed, per guidelines].

"Drugs should not be abused cause it may destroy our brain cells". I agree but who cares about this (drug addicts)?. Few days ago, I found my son using drug for nothing. Does it seems to be the initial stage of drug addiction? [commercial link removed, per guidelines.]

Drug is useful if it is properly used because if not, it will destroy our health.

"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."

This doesn't answer the question "What is a drug?", this is just defining a drug of abuse.

This website is full of misinformation.

Can "pornography" really be counted as a drug since many new researchers are classifying it as something the can cause addiction? Modern research is concluding that pornography causes stimulation in our brain and the release of neuro-chemicals like dopamin, serotonin...etc which are also released when people intake drugs like cocaine...I think research is still kinda new to the world of porn and sex addictions but hopefully they find out stuff soon. I found some good references on impact of watching porn on the brain [commercial link removed, per guidelines]

@Devin That is a timely question, given the research taking place on different kinds of addictions, including Internet and video game addictions. With regard to the latter, you may want to check out a blog about Ethan Moore, a winner of NIDA’s Addiction Science Award given at the 2008 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Atlanta. His entry was titled Video Games: The Next Generation's Addiction. He chose the topic based on his own observation that video games are often used as babysitting tools, yet can lead to obsessive use. To answer your specific question, NIDA defines a “drug” as “a chemical compound or substance that can alter the structure and function of the body.” So, porn doesn’t really fit that definition, even though it can be addictive for some.

in the war on drugs. scientist have won a victory over egnorance. they descoverd that the elligal drugs marejuana,hasis,cocaine,opium,heroin,harm the brain.medical imaging thecknique have shown. for example cocaine cerculatory and metabolic troble in the brain.

YEAH I SEE DAT DIS DRUG IZ BAD FOR THE UMAN BODY

Again, I find the definitions confounding. The link to the glossery states: "Drug abuse: The use of illegal drugs or the inappropriate use of legal drugs. The repeated use of drugs to produce pleasure, to alleviate stress, or to alter or avoid reality (or all three)."

I'd say that definition contradicts reality. Sure, Congress can make a law saying Marijuana is illegal, and then one can define certain uses of marijuana as drug abuse, but to say all use of it is abuse, just because it's illegal, flies in the face of hundreds of thousands of Medical Marijuana uses that have used it to treat/cure various ailments of theirs, and for no other use... the same stuff legal medicines are used for.

Congress could also pass a law defining sunrise as 6 AM (every day, regardless of latitude and time of the year) and sunset as 6 PM, and then astronautical or meteorological glossaries could choose to agree... even if the sun actually comes above the horizon at 5:24 AM and comes below the horizon at 7:43 PM on some given day and location. The law, and therefore the definition, simply contradicts reality, and therefore reality should take the superior position. It's ironic that altering or avoiding reality is included in the definition of drug abuse, when the first half of the definition does exactly that itself. Sure, substances CAN be abused, just as sunrise and sunset CAN happen at 6 AM or 6 PM, but it's not true 100% of the time, and cannot be decreed to be so just because someone with authority says so. This fact doesn't go unnoticed by teens.

Use doesn't automatically become abuse just because the substance being used is on a list Congress came up with, especially when the valid uses are demonstrable (and the Federal Government owns patents on medical uses of Cannabis, in spite of claiming with its laws that no medical uses exist.)

There is no one definition of drug abuse that everyone agrees on. The one you cite is intended both to be broad enough to cover many situations and written in language that is easy to understand – it is not intended for use in clinical diagnoses. Whether you take someone else’s prescription drugs, drink when you are under age, or take a drug that you don’t believe should be illegal – it is abuse. And because it’s also illegal, the laws stand and criminal justice consequences are possible side effects, along with health ones.

"Whether you take someone else’s prescription drugs, drink when you are under age, or take a drug that you don’t believe should be illegal – it is abuse." This just simply is not true. There have been countless cases of Marijuana being used effectively to treat chronic pain, seizures, and even cancer. Even "hard" drugs have been shown to have positive sides. Psilocybin, the active chemical in Mushrooms, has been proven effective in the treatment of chronic depression, LSD-25 has been shown to help with cluster headaches and schizophrenia, MDMA can be useful for patients suffering from multiple personality disorder. The idea that a governing body has the right to tell its citizens that the use of a certain effective treatment for any ailment is wrong is akin to me telling you that you can't eat peanut butter because it sticks to the roof of your mouth and could suffocate you. It is not my right to tell you what to do or not to do. My advice to any and all teens reading this is to do your research. Understand that Alcohol and the Vyvanse you are prescribed for your ADHD are just as much drugs as Marijuana or Heroin. And Remember kids, as a democracy, we are a government "of the people, by the people, for the people." You are the people, don't be tricked into being sheep.

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