Most people know that addiction, can be overcome with treatment. But like many other diseases, it is often a winding road to get there. So, what are the steps to a healthier, drug-free life?
Seek treatment. The first step to recovery is to decide to seek treatment. It’s hard for people to recognize or admit they have a problem, even when they are putting their lives – or the lives of others – at risk. It doesn’t help that the brain’s decision-making center is impaired when under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Treatment may mean medications, behavioral counseling, or a combination of the two.
Learn new habits. Relapse (or returning to drug use) is common with addiction and is an expected part of treatment. Returning to the people, places, or things associated with former drug use can actually trigger relapse—before the addicted person is even aware of it. Behavioral therapy can teach the person in recovery to avoid these triggers and learn new coping skills so they can make better decisions.
Take it one step at a time. Recovery takes time. Treatment works best when it is long-term, at least 90 days in most cases. And because people treated for drug addiction are vulnerable to relapse even after they’ve been off drugs for a long while, most treatment professionals would say that someone with a past drug or alcohol problem is “in recovery” for a lifetime.
Find treatment. If you are interested in finding drug abuse treatment for yourself or a friend or family member, look up facilities near you by using the Substance Abuse Facility Treatment Locator, provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.
My name is Sharlett, and I’m from Washington State. Recently, I completed an internship for NIDA in Washington, DC. I worked behind the scenes with the communications experts, which means I was involved with organizing and publicizing different cool events and publications that NIDA offers you.
One of my most interesting projects was helping to spread the word about National Drug Facts Week, which occurred last November. One of my biggest tasks was to promote the “National Drug IQ Challenge en Español”—to encourage teens, their parents, and friends to take the quiz and test their knowledge about drug abuse and addiction. This was the first year the Challenge was offered in Spanish, and everyone has been really excited about it.
I am thrilled I got to be a part of such a great organization. I was offered the chance to work for NIDA in late July, and I knew right away it was an awesome opportunity. Every day, I got to use what I learned in college to promote drug awareness and help teens stay safe. I think it is crucial to make facts about drugs easily available to teens to counteract all the myths that are floating around.
Before coming to NIDA, my knowledge about drugs and drug abuse was very limited. I knew that drugs harm the body and that they can lead to illness or even death. I knew that one of my favorite comedians, Chris Farley, died from a drug overdose in 1997. I began to form perceptions and beliefs about drug abuse, but my “drug IQ” was very basic. After working at NIDA for just a few weeks, I learned some surprising new facts like:
Drug addiction is a disease. Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain—they change its structure and how it works.
Marijuana can be addictive. The changes from using marijuana or any drug are different for each person. For marijuana, about 1 in 11 people who use it become addicted, and that rate goes up if you start young and if you smoke a lot. To learn the facts about marijuana, check out the booklet, Marijuana: Facts for Teens.
Not all drugs are illegal. Tobacco and alcohol are both addictive drugs and can cause serious health problems. Similarly, prescription drugs, which are meant to help people with health problems, can become addictive and are being abused at high rates among all age groups, including teens.
If more people knew the facts, they could better understand drugs and their consequences. I know I do. The next National Drug Facts Week starts January 28, 2013. I’ll be watching the National Drug Facts Week Web site to see what new and interesting things NIDA has to offer.
What's the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word disease? You might think of cancer, diabetes, or epilepsy. But do you think of drug abuse? Probably not. But, for some people, drug abuse can lead to a disease called addiction.
A disease is when something in the body doesn't work like it's supposed to-an organ or a whole system has something wrong with it and disrupts functioning. Diseases can be caused by many different factors, from your genes (what you inherited from your parents) to germs and viruses to not getting the vitamins that your body needs to stay healthy.
Some diseases can be cured with medication or changes in lifestyle and may never come back. Others are chronic diseases, meaning they last for a long time or can come back again.
Addiction is a chronic disease. Drugs change the way the brain works, and using them can lead to addiction. Once a person is addicted to a drug, they feel the need to take that drug over and over just to feel like their "normal" self. Tracking down and taking the drug usually becomes more important than eating, sleeping, dating, doing school work, or earning money.
Even if they stop using drugs, people with addiction have brains that have been chemically altered, making them vulnerable to relapse (resuming drug use).
To learn more, take a look at The Science of Addiction. Share something you didn't know before.
In March 2012, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office reported that Whitney Houston’s official cause of death was accidental drowning. Cocaine use and heart disease were contributing factors in her death.
The coroner believes that cocaine use caused Whitney to suffer heart problems (she already had heart disease), which led her to become unconscious. Bruises on her forehead, chest, and upper lip suggest that she fell into the bathtub, where she drowned.
The six-time Grammy winner also had marijuana, the prescription drugs Xanax and Flexeril, and the over-the-counter medicine Benadryl in her bloodstream, though the coroner does not believe they played a role in her death.
Cocaine Can Lead to Scary Side Effects
Cocaine is a stimulant—a class of drugs that elevate mood, boost feelings of well-being and euphoria, and increase energy and alertness. Stimulants make a person feel good by increasing the amount of dopamine in the brain, but they also have some nasty side effects. Short-term effects can include increased body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure; dilated pupils; nausea; blurred vision; muscle spasms; and confusion.
With repeated use, cocaine can lead to addiction (something Whitney struggled with for years), which changes how the brain works and makes it more difficult to feel any pleasure at all. People who abuse cocaine are forced to take more and more of the drug to experience the same effects as they did at first. Regularly snorting cocaine can lead to other long-term effects such as a hoarse voice, loss of the sense of smell, nosebleeds, and a chronically runny nose. Whitney’s famous voice was noticeably damaged in recent years, and the autopsy showed she had a hole inside her nose from repeated cocaine use.
Cocaine and Heart Disease
Another long-term effect of abusing cocaine is heart damage. Stimulants cause the body’s blood vessels to narrow, limiting blood flow and forcing the heart to work harder to pump blood through the body. It also restricts blood flow to the heart, killing some of the heart muscle.
Because the effects of cocaine are worse on arteries that are already damaged, people who have heart disease—like Whitney did—suffer most from the effects. The chance of having heart trouble, such as a heart attack, also increases.
Unfortunately, Whitney’s cocaine abuse ultimately led her to suffer the worst effect of the drug—death. We hope that people can learn from her experience and avoid the same tragedy.
Did Whitney’s death change the way you or your friends think about drugs? Tell us in the comments how her death affected you.
“Comorbidity” is a strange word, right? Well, at least for me it was. I have to admit it that it was the first scientific word I learned during my internship here at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)–my Spanish accent still gives me a hard time pronouncing it. On the first day of my internship, I had to read and get acquainted with the extensive research that NIDA has done and published. Comorbidity was featured in NIDA’s Research Report Series.
So, what’s co-mor-bid-it-y? Here’s what NIDA scientists say: “When two disorders or illnesses occur in the same person, together or one after the other, they are called comorbid.” Having two disorders together can also cause them to interact in ways that make both of them worse.
So what does all of that really mean? It means that sometimes two illnesses go together. For example, people who have depression or other mental illness are often addicted to drugs as well, and vice versa, so that’s why scientists say depression is often “comorbid with” drug abuse.
NIDA scientists aren’t completely sure why people who are depressed are more likely to have a drug abuse problem. But here’s my take on it. Everyone has felt down before. If someone feels really bad, they may turn to drugs to “ease their mind.” Unfortunately, that can lead to a second disease–addiction to drugs–and then they feel even worse than they did before.
That’s what’s really bad about comorbid diseases: they can make each other worse! If someone is depressed, it’s harder to be motivated to quit using drugs. And if someone is using drugs, it can interfere with their treatment for depression.
What other diseases do you think could be comorbid? And why?
This is a guest SBB post from NIDA intern Giselle.
Musician Elton John recently said he’s been helping rapper pal Eminem work through his problems with substance abuse.
Eminem (aka Slim Shady and, before that, Marshall Mathers from Detroit, MI), was in treatment for substance abuse in 2005. Since then, he has abused prescription drugs like Vicodin, Ambien, and Valium. Some bad things happened after 2005, and maybe that led him to start abusing drugs again. In December 2007, he was devastated when his marriage ended and his closest friend and fellow rapper DeShaun “Proof” Holton died. Eminem was even hospitalized for overdosing on methadone. Then in early 2008, he began a program to recover from his addiction, and he says he’s been off drugs since April 2008.
Skip to now…if you read the lyrics on his latest album, called “Relapse,” Eminem continues to glorify drug use and violence, even while he himself is trying to stay sober. So, here’s a question for you:
Does artistic expression mean you can say whatever you want, even if you know you could be influencing others to hurt themselves by taking drugs?
Elton John has acknowledged his own problems with substance abuse in the past. He says he wants to be there now to help anyone who has addiction problems. It’s good that Eminem has a more experienced artist like Elton John to guide him through this personal struggle. Wouldn’t it be great if this true friend could also help Eminem use his talents to contribute a positive musical message to the world?
We recently had a chance to talk with Super Star (his legal name) of the ROCKSTAR SUPERSTAR PROJECT (RSSS). He gave us some advice about becoming a rock star, but he also had some great information about shattering the myths around drugs and drug abuse. Check out part 2 of his interview.
Why is it important to shatter myths about drugs and drug abuse?
Knowing the facts about drugs is essential because drug abuse can kill you or the people you care about. And you don’t need to be addicted a long time for that to happen. Taking a pill, binging on alcohol, or ingesting cocaine just once can bring on horrible consequences, including death.
NIDA’s “Shatter the Myths” booklet states that nearly “1 in 11 people who use (marijuana) become addicted.” I was one of those people. When I was a teenager, I never thought smoking marijuana would lead me to crack cocaine. At the time, I thought, "It’s just weed—no big deal.” But after a while, smoking marijuana wasn’t enough for me, so I sought other drugs to chase the high feeling. I might have made different choices if I had known more about drugs and how they affect you.
We at ROCKSTAR SUPERSTAR PROJECT (RSSS) want to share the facts about substance use because there is so much misinformation out there. We believe that if people are informed, they can make better choices for themselves. The ROCKSTAR SUPERSTAR PROJECT is excited to support and promote National Drug Facts Week this year. If National Drug Facts Week was around when I was in high school, I might have asked, “Can you help me?”
How has your life changed since you stopped using drugs?
I’ve discovered my purpose in life after surviving an almost 15-year battle with the disease of addiction. Today, I’m a recording artist. My twin brother, Rock Star (also his real legal name), and I recorded Serenity, a first-of-its-kind CD focused solely on combating addiction. A Grammy-winning producer worked on the CD, along with many famous musicians who came together to help others through their own addiction struggles. Guests on our CD include current and former members of the bands Kiss, Heart, The Goo Goo Dolls, Dokken, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and many more.
What are RSSS’s Skype sessions?
The Skype sessions give the chance to participate and ask questions in a small group. I share part of my story as well as information from NIDA’s “Shatter the Myths” booklet with facts about drugs and drug abuse.
My main messages are:
1. Success is achieved by making responsible choices. Waking up every day and doing the right thing will always get you to the right place.
2. Everyone should believe in themselves, no matter what others think.
3. Sobriety is COOL!!
What advice can you give someone who wants to experiment with drugs?
I’d tell them to ask themselves if not ever having the chance to go home again is worth the risk. Is waking up in a jail cell worth the few minutes of escaping reality?
I would tell them to reach out to an adult or someone they trust and tell them about how they’re feeling. Ask for help, because not asking for help or support can lead to a life of misery or no life at all.
Always love, always encourage, and never let despair get in the way!
Many people who are in recovery from drug abuse tell their story to try and help others. The latest celebrity to talk about his struggles with drugs—cocaine and alcohol—is singer Elton John. He recently gave interviews about the release of his new book. Here are some things Elton said about his life addicted to cocaine, which he quit using in the 1990s.
- He “wasted” that part of his life because all he was concerned about was the drug: “I was a drug addict and self-absorbed.”
- In his addicted state, Elton didn’t care about friends or family, even those who were dying of AIDS during the peak of the AIDS epidemic.
- He made risky decisions about sex—and feels lucky that he isn’t infected with HIV today: “When you take a drug and you take a drink [of alcohol] … you think you're invincible.”
- Memories still haunt him, even after about 20 years in recovery: “I still dream, twice a week at least, that I've taken cocaine and I have it up my nose. And it's very vivid and it's very upsetting, but at least it's a wake-up call.”
- When he started using cocaine, Elton thought it would help him overcome his shyness and open up to people; in the end, it isolated him from everyone in his life.
Learn More and Sound Off NIDA devoted a whole campaign to how drug abuse can lead people to make risky decisions and put themselves at risk for contracting HIV. Read all the facts about the effects of cocaine on the brain and body. Comment! What do you think about celebs who open up about drug abuse?
Hollywood is exciting, glamorous, dramatic, funny, and can make just about anything seem cool—including drug abuse, and especially the use of marijuana. But films don’t tell you the whole story. Did you know there are over 400 different chemicals in marijuana smoke? Did you know that marijuana smoke really does hurt your memory, judgment, and perception? And yes—you can get addicted to marijuana!
In this video, NIDA scientist Dr. Joe Frascella explains why marijuana is not all its “glammed” up to be. Dr. Frascella runs the division of NIDA that deals with clinical neuroscience, human development, and behavioral treatment for drug abuse and addiction. Watch the video and then tell us in comments which movies you think glamorize the use of marijuana.
Euphoria: A feeling of well-being or elation.
Euphoria is that excitement you get from getting a perfect score on a test, or attention from someone you have a crush on. It can come from a roller coaster ride or as the rush from a physical activity like downhill skiing, especially the first time. These feelings of euphoria are all healthy and natural.
What's not healthy or natural is taking drugs to feel "euphoric." Drugs of abuse artificially produce euphoria by manipulating your brain chemistry to make it seem that something exciting is happening. To get this feeling again, you may choose to use the drugs again-and again. And that can lead to craving and addiction.
Over time, the brain needs more of the drug to get the same feelings of pleasure. Why? The drug causes surges, like waves, of the brain chemical dopamine, which initially produce the euphoria. After repeated hits, though, the brain adjusts to this higher level of dopamine by making less of it and by reducing the number of receptors that can receive and transmit the signals it sends. Pretty soon, the drug abuser is taking the drug just to bring the dopamine functions back up to normal and to avoid the horrible craving that compels them to seek and use drugs even when their lives and health are falling apart. That is really the essence of addiction.
But the good news is that natural, healthy experiences of euphoria don't wreck the brain's chemistry. So think about what you do in life that makes you feel good. Spending time with friends, playing with your dog, doing sports, seeing a good movie? Any of these activities can create a natural euphoria by triggering the brain's reward system the way it was meant to work.
So don't let drugs fool your brain, and then wreck it.
Many of you probably heard that the European tour just launched by the talented Amy Winehouse has been canceled after fans watched the diva stumble under the lights in Serbia. Reports say audience members in Belgrade booed her off the stage Saturday night just a few songs into the first concert of the tour when she couldn’t even remember the lyrics to her own songs. The Grammy winner was scheduled for a dream tour—to Istanbul, Athens, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Poland, Hungary and Romania—but those dates have all been cancelled. The Serbian media called the concert a "scandal," with Belgrade’s daily newspaper calling it "the worst performance in the history of Belgrade."
It is ironic that Amy Winehouse became famous for her song "Rehab," where she sang: "They tried to make me go to rehab. I said 'No, no, no.'" After the song became a hit, she actually said “yes” to drug and alcohol rehab in London, where she stayed for a month. If she has turned again to drugs, people will ask the same questions about if rehab works, and why big stars risk everything for drugs…
We’ve talked about rehab before, but Amy Winehouse’s struggle highlights what rehab is all about: addiction is a chronic disease, which means it has to be managed throughout your whole life. People relapse to drug addiction just like they do with other chronic illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, and asthma. To successfully treat a chronic disease, you have to change deeply imbedded behaviors—and that takes practice. For example, a diabetic has to learn how to manage a restricted diet, just as a person struggling with addiction has to learn how to manage cravings. Relapse does not mean treatment failure, but that treatment needs to be adjusted or changed altogether.
Sadly, many people are able to hide their addiction from the world and never get help. For famous people, every slip is recorded by fans and posted for millions to see. But famous or not, being successful in recovery takes a lot of support—which it sounds like Amy Winehouse has. Her representative put out this statement: "Everyone involved wishes to do everything they can to help her return to her best and she will be given as long as it takes for this to happen."
R.I.P Amy Winehouse 1983-2011
My experience at NIDA was an incredible one where I learned a great deal about addiction, the science behind it, and outreach to NIDA’s different audiences. For instance, I had no idea that addiction was a disease of the brain and that certain individuals’ genes may cause them to be more vulnerable to using drugs and alcohol, along with environment and other influences. It was fascinating to study about drugs more in-depth and how using them really does change the chemical structure of your brain, making it more difficult to quit.
Taking Resources Back Home
On top of what I learned about addiction science, I was fortunate to learn how NIDA’s health campaigns work and how to successfully send out public health messages to different groups. Learning about marginalized communities, such as inner-city children, and some of the difficulties they struggle with regarding drugs and alcohol spoke to me the most for a number of reasons.
I am deeply passionate about helping to solve certain problems affecting minority populations because of my own neighborhood in Chicago, where drugs and crime are all too common. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many programs available for youth to start prevention early, but now that I’m aware of the resources that NIDA offers (and in Spanish too!) it’s definitely one of my goals to begin contacting schools and youth ministries about the materials NIDA offers.
Art Meets Science
I gained so much insight during my internship with NIDA about public outreach on a national level, the importance of many groups working together to carry out a project, and event planning—just to name a few. I will be forever indebted to those at NIDA who offered me their guidance and time to make the most of my semester there. It was one of the best times of my life!
Joanna Arellano was a college intern in NIDA’s Public Information and Liaison Branch within the Office of Science Policy and Communications during spring 2012. Since leaving NIDA, she accepted an internship for Catholic Relief Services in its Global Initiative program. To learn more about internship opportunities with the National Institutes of Health, visit the NIH Training Center.
Have you been at a restaurant or party where people are smoking, and acting like their clouds of smoke are no big deal? Do you put up with breathing secondhand smoke to hang out with your friends? In this video, Dr. Gaya Dowling and Dr. Redonna Chandler sink a few balls while sharing some real facts about smoking.
Fact: Nicotine is addictive.
Fact: Most smokers start smoking before the age of 18.
Fact: It only takes eight seconds for the nicotine in cigarette smoke to be inhaled, enter your brain, and start affecting your brain cells—whether or not you're the one who lit up in the first place!
That's less time than it takes most people to cue up and make a shot. Watch the video and see what you think.
Lots of teens have questions about drugs. Each year, NIDA scientists spend a whole day chatting online with high school students and answering their questions.
At the last “Drug Facts Chat Day,” a teen from Lima Central Catholic High School in Lima, Ohio asked:
What should I do if one of my friends is using drugs... What should I tell him to convince him to stop?
There are many ways to help and support your friend, but in the end, it will need to be your friend’s decision. And just by asking us this question, it’s easy to see you are a good friend. Sometimes our friends won’t appreciate advice they don’t want to hear—especially if they are using drugs—but telling the truth to help someone close to you is part of being a real friend, even when it’s hard to do.
Here’s some ideas of things to say and do to help:
What To Do:
- Find out if your friend is experimenting with drugs, or if he may be addicted. Neither one is good—but you may need more support if your friend is addicted.
- Understand that addiction is a brain disease. Just like you wouldn’t expect someone with cancer to be able to heal herself without the help of a doctor, the right treatment, and support from family and friends, you can’t expect your friend to heal herself.
- Know that it is never easy for anyone to admit that they have a drug problem. You will need to be patient—and not give up easily.
- Listen, encourage, share, and support. Sounds easy right? But it’s so hard. We provide further tips and resources in a previous post we wrote titled “How to Help a Friend in Need.”
- BTW, it's tough having a friend with addiction issues. So, if you need some support, visit: http://www.alanon.alateen.org/.
What To Say:
- Just telling your friend that you’re concerned can be a big help. Your friend may not want to talk about it, and the effects that drugs have on the brain may keep him or her from “hearing” you or acting on your advice.
- Assure your friend you are there for her and that she is not alone. People with drug problems often have gotten in with the wrong crowd—and they don’t want to turn away from these so-called friends for fear of being alone.
- Suggest that he or she speak to a trusted adult who will keep it confidential. Maybe there’s a family friend who could help.
- Turn to a professional for immediate help if the problem looks to be too big for you to handle alone, or if you’re worried your friend may have suicidal thoughts that she could act on.
- Use SAMHSA’s Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator or call 1–800–662–HELP to tap into a support network where you can find immediate and confidential help 24/7. They will also be able to direct you to local treatment options.
When the people we care about and have lots in common with make bad choices, it can be frustrating, confusing, and a little depressing. Still, we should be there for our friends, and also try to be a good role models for them by making smart choices ourselves.
You might have heard the news that former first lady Betty Ford recently died at the age of 93. Many of you reading this might never have heard of Betty Ford; after all, she became First Lady way back in 1974. But maybe you’ve heard of the Betty Ford Center, a rehab center in Rancho Mirage, California, where many celebrities have gone to seek treatment for their addictions. You also may not know why she built the center.
Not long after Richard Nixon resigned from office during the Watergate scandal, Jerry Ford suddenly became President and the family got thrust into public life. Betty Ford wrote in her memoirs that her family never wanted that level of fame, but accepted it to help the country through difficult times.
Over the years, as the spotlight on Betty Ford and her family grew, she began to drink more heavily on top of a dependency on pain pills, which started in 1964 when she got a prescription to relieve constant pain from a neck injury and a pinched nerve. We now know that mixing pills and alcohol is a big mistake. Once she was First Lady, people began to notice that when she spoke she was slowly slurring her words and she seemed to have no energy. After her husband’s presidency was over, Betty Ford left public life and soon announced she was addicted to pills and alcohol. In her memoirs, she tells the story about how her family confronted her about her addiction, which at first she was not happy about. Later, she thanked them and became a champion for people struggling with the disease.
Her openness about her addiction was shocking to some people. Forty years ago, people tried to hide the fact they had an addiction problem, but she bravely brought it into the light, giving others the courage to ask for help with their own drug abuse and addiction problems. She entered rehab and, with treatment, learned to manage her addictions. A few years later she opened a rehab center in her name to help other people. Today the Betty Ford Center is a thriving treatment center, and because of its closeness to Los Angeles, it has become a rehab center for many famous people, including Drew Barrymore, Robert Downey, Jr., Johnny Cash, Elizabeth Taylor, and many others.
So SBB says thank you Betty Ford for having the courage to use your personal story to educate people about addiction, and for bringing it from the darkness into the light, from shame and despair to treatment and hope.
How did she have the courage to bring her addiction out in the open? She has been quoted as saying, “The public needed to know that this didn’t have to be swept under the rug anymore, that this needed to be open and discussed.”
If you’re like most people, you may try to avoid revealing anything about yourself that will make people think differently or negatively about you. Basically, you’re avoiding stigma—which is being marked by shame or disgrace.
But what if you have a drug problem and want to get help?
For a long time, our society has “stigmatized” drug use and addiction, judging people with drug or alcohol problems. Fear of being judged can be dangerous if it keeps someone from getting treatment.
One way to combat the stigma associated with drug addiction is to teach people the facts. NIDA science shows that addiction is a disease, just as cancer and asthma are diseases. It’s not just that the person chooses to take drugs. In fact, an addicted person no longer chooses to take drugs—rather, their brains have been altered by drugs to the point where free will has been cruelly “hijacked,” and the desire to seek and use drugs is beyond their control. Addiction is a disease of the brain that manifests itself in compulsive behaviors. Helping people understand this sad truth may lead to more support for those battling addiction.
It’s also important to stop labeling people as one thing or another. Try to avoid saying “addicts.” This label makes it easier to dismiss people as not worthy of help or notice. It’s better to say, people with “drug use problems” or “substance use disorders.” It may be a mouthful, but this phrase makes it clear that these are people who are facing challenges. They are more than just drug addicts.
Do you avoid certain hobbies, interests, or even potential new friends because you’re afraid of what your current friends will think? What would you say to someone who needs drug abuse treatment but isn’t getting it for fear of being judged?
You probably know that your genes help make you who you are. Except for identical twins, everyone has a slightly different set of genes, and when our genes interact with our environment, that’s what makes us unique individuals.
Genes give us different hair, eye, and skin colors, and affect our height and weight. Genes also affect the inside of our bodies, and influence how organs like the heart, lungs, and even the brain work. But did you know that genes also affect how you behave. And the opposite is true as well–how you behave can affect your genes!
Scientists have learned that genes are affected by our lifestyles–what we eat and drink, how much we exercise, how much we sleep. These factors influence how genes are expressed–or turned “on” or “off”–in our bodies. That can have pretty major effects on health.
Currently, scientists are studying how taking cocaine affects your genes. Scientists have known for a while that using cocaine over a drawn-out period can lead to permanent changes in the brain. Teen brains may be especially vulnerable, because they are not yet fully developed. But what causes those changes to happen?
In May 2009, a NIDA-funded study found one piece of the puzzle-and it has to do with, yep, genes. For the first time, scientists have discovered that mice given repeated cocaine exposure “turn on” genes in certain regions of the brain. These genes, called sirtuins [pronounced sir-2-ins], are activated by long-term exposure to cocaine, and it looks like they contribute to the development of addiction.
When the scientists prevented sirtuin activation in the brains of lab mice, the mice didn’t find cocaine to be as good, or rewarding. To say it another way, without turning these genes “on,” cocaine couldn’t give the mice a “high” anymore, and the mice didn’t want the drug as much.
These results are pretty exciting, because if scientists could develop a treatment based on these genes, it might help people suffering from cocaine addiction. That kind of treatment is a long way off–but at least now the scientists know how cocaine affects genes, and how that affects the brain. And that’s a good start.
To find out more about how cocaine affects the body, visit NIDA’s website, or read this basic overview of how genes and drug addiction interact.
On Drug Facts Chat Day, we get thousands of questions about drugs from high school students all over the country. Today, we’re taking one from Casa Grande Union High School in Arizona:
Which drug is most addictive?
Let’s start with this basic truth—although some drugs are stronger or more powerful than others, all drugs are potentially dangerous. Each has a way of tapping into your brain’s pleasure circuitry and altering your physical or emotional state. And this means—Any of them can lead to abuse and addiction.
But what makes one drug more addictive than another has to do with a person’s environment (like stress, or friends who use drugs), the type of drug, and how much it’s used—even genes have a role in whether or not someone becomes addicted. Scientists have already identified a particular gene that makes some people more likely to become addicted to nicotine, the drug found in cigarettes and other tobacco products. All these factors affect the individual person in different ways, which is why everyone’s experience with drug addiction is unique.
Even so, some of the most intoxicating drugs out there will take fewer doses over a shorter period of time for many people to become addicted. This includes cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin. And a high dose of a weaker drug taken more often over the same period of time could lead to addiction for some people as well. It’s a hard call to make in advance.
In 2011, at age 14, Grant Davis was recognized by NIDA and the GRAMMY Foundation for his song, “Just a Child,” a tribute to his older sister Kelly, who struggled with addiction.
Recently, Grant shared his story during a TEDx event at the University of Nevada. TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) and TEDx are a series of conferences designed to share “ideas worth spreading.”
Grant, now 16, says that as he prepared his TED talk, he remembered how he felt seeing his sister passed out on the floor. “I couldn’t get that image out of my head,” he says. “Heroin, Kelly’s drug of choice, is incredibly difficult to overcome. Every second of every day, I know she wishes she could go back and live her life differently.”
But Grant’s latest song, “What About Me?” focuses on another aspect of drug addiction—how it also affects the person’s loved ones and overshadows everything else.
Grant says, “At 10 years old, I experienced many scary thoughts about my sister’s addiction. My parents were wrapped up with helping her, and I kept thinking, ‘What about me?’ The pain was overwhelming.”
Singing gave Grant a way to release the pain he was feeling. “I began singing, first in the shower, then in my room. Through singing, I found the pain was nearly gone, and I could think clearly,” Grant explains.
A conversation with his mother gave Grant a new idea. He says, “I thought, I can’t be the only kid suffering. So I decided to start an afterschool club for anyone having troubles at home.”
Creativity for Positivity
Grant calls this club WAM, for “What About Me?” and sees it providing a creative outlet for kids who might otherwise give in to negative influences and peer pressure. WAM has three main goals, to help kids:
- Build friendships.
- Find their creative place in the world.
- Share their talent.
“The process of sharing and discovering your talent can have a genuine impact on self-esteem so that kids do not fall prey to drugs,” Grant says. Noting his sister’s continuing struggles, he observes, “It’s easier than having to fix a drug problem afterwards.”
Grant envisions WAM as a way for kids to find and share their voices in whatever form of creative expression they choose. “I do believe that anyone who wants to can fly.”
Tell us in comments: Do any creative pursuits help when you get down or go through hard times?
Figuring out what to do when a friend or someone you know is having trouble with drugs or alcohol can be tricky. You want to help, but you might not know how to bring it up. Here are some tips.
Listen. If he talks to you, just be there for him. Admitting a problem—never mind talking to someone about it—is really hard. Listen to what he has to say about his drug use without making judgments.
Encourage. Suggest that she talk to an adult she trusts—a coach or teacher, a school counselor, a relative, or a doctor.
Share. Maybe your friend doesn’t see his or her drug use as a bad thing. But plenty of real scientific information about what drugs can do to a person is on the NIDA Web site. Once your friend understands how drugs affect the brain, body, and life, it might open their eyes.
Inform. When he’s ready to make a change and seek treatment, help him find a doctor, therapist, support group, or treatment program. You can use SAMHSA’s Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator or call 1–800–662–HELP.
Support. Don’t give up on your friend, even if she isn’t ready to get help. Keep reaching out. Encourage them to get treatment, and support them along the way—that’s the best way to help someone you care about who is struggling with addiction.
Addiction is defined as “A chronic, relapsing disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use—despite serious, even devastating consequences—and by long-lasting chemical changes in the brain.” When a person is addicted to a drug, finding and using that drug becomes the most important thing—more important than family, friends, school, sports, or money.
Not everyone will become addicted after they smoke a cigarette, drink alcohol, or take another drug, but even experimenting can raise your risk.
Have you heard about all these celebrities going in and out of rehab? That’s because addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease, like heart disease, hypertension, or diabetes that can be managed with treatment. And even though a person may beat their addiction with treatment, he or she is always at risk of relapse.
If you think you or a friend may be addicted to a substance, talk to a family member, medical professional, or other trusted adult to get help. You can also check out the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Treatment Facility Locator for treatment services near you.
To learn more about addiction, check out NIDA’s publication, Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.
Recovery from addiction doesn’t mean completing a rehabilitation program and then you are cured. Addiction is a brain disease that requires commitment and effort every single day to stay off drugs.
It can also mean more than one round of treatment—and usually does.
In April 2013, “Glee” star Cory Monteith checked himself into a treatment facility for drug addiction. This is the second time the actor has been in rehab.
When Cory was 19, he went to rehab after developing a severe drug addiction and dropping out of school. He went back to using drugs soon after, and eventually became so desperate he stole money from a family member. His family gave him the choice to either stop using drugs, or they would press charges for the theft.
Cory sought help to stop using drugs and began working with an acting coach. Just 2 years ago, he received his high school diploma, while starring as high school student Finn Hudson on “Glee.”
Now 30 years old, Cory has chosen to refocus on his recovery. We’re not sure if he was using drugs, or if he simply was struggling with the urge to use again. But we do know that he’s making the smart decision to put his health first.
Cory’s out of rehab now, and we wish him the best in his recovery journey. Recovery from addiction is a lifelong journey that sometimes requires multiple treatment episodes, just like some other illnesses like diabetes or heart disease. But if you have a problem, you’re never too young to start addressing it.
NIDA continues to research the science of addiction, so that we can learn how to better prevent, manage, and eventually cure this disease.
What do you think about Cory Monteith’s second stint in rehab?
Have you ever wondered about whether medications prescribed by a doctor could actually be dangerous? Or whether giving a friend a prescription pill you take for ADHD could be bad for them?
Sometimes, people assume that if your doctor prescribes you medications, then they are safe for anyone. Prescription drugs, like Ritalin or Adderall for ADHD, or Tylenol 3 or Percocet for pain, can be extremely effective when used as prescribed…by the people they were prescribed for.
But people who have not been seen by a doctor for these conditions are asking friends to share their drugs for a variety of reasons. For example, Adderall and Ritalin belong to a class of drugs called stimulants—that is, they stimulate your brain and make you feel more alert. Teens might think that's an advantage when taking a test at school. However, that kind of use is actually drug abuse, and can hurt you.
Check out the November issue of Glamour magazine for stories of women who have taken these drugs—both as prescribed and not—and see what they experienced as a result (NIDA's Director, Dr. Nora Volkow was interviewed as a subject expert). And check out the facts about prescription drug abuse on NIDA for Teens.
The average price for a pack of cigarettes (PDF, 57.91 KB) nationwide is around $5.50—more or less depending on the State you live in. The spending calculator lets you enter the number of packs smoked per week as well as the price per pack. Then, it calculates the monthly and yearly cost.
Let’s say you smoke one pack a week at the average price of $5.50 per pack—that’s $22 a month and $264 a year. If you smoke two packs a week, the numbers double—$44 a month and more than $500 a year! I’m sure you can think of better things to do with $500....
According to NIDA research, nicotine in cigarettes is addictive, and most people smoke tobacco regularly because they are addicted to nicotine. Once people get addicted, they need more and more of the drug to get the same effect. That means smoking leads to more smoking, which leads to more money for the cigarette companies and less for you—not to mention the hit on your health.
When you quit, treat yourself to a reward, and pay for it with the money you used to spend on cigarettes. To talk to someone about quitting, call the national toll-free number, 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669).
Poet and playwright T.S. Eliot said, “A play should give you something to think about.” That’s exactly what happens with a new NIDA project—called the Addiction Performance Project. It illustrates the emotional toll drug addiction takes on people and their families and gets the audience to talk about it. At a recent performance, award-winning professional actors, including Debra Winger, performed a dramatic reading of Act III of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day's Journey Into Night. Based on O’Neill’s own family, this play shows how, over the course of just 1 day, a family can fall apart when addiction rules over it. In this family, the mother is addicted to morphine and starts abusing it again, and the father and sons, who are alcoholics, drink to cope with her relapse. By putting a human face on addiction, the Addiction Performance Project helps break down the stigma—or discrimination and judgment—associated with this disease. The Addiction Performance Project reading is followed by a discussion with scientists, doctors, and medical students on the challenges and opportunities in treating people who are addicted to drugs. Watch the video below to see snippets of the Addiction Performance Project, performed here by Blythe Danner (Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother) and other actors.
“I’m an addict,” Lindsay Lohan told Oprah in a recent interview.
The actress is speaking publicly about her commitment to recovery from drug and alcohol abuse—after 6 visits to rehab, a stint in jail, 2 drunk driving arrests, and 7 car accidents. This time, LiLo insists, she’s going to stay away from drugs and alcohol.
Beating addiction isn’t easy. Addiction is a disease that causes people to continually seek and use drugs—even when they know the results are dangerous and drug use can change the brain. In fact, the definition of addiction is that people continue to use drugs despite negative consequences.
Many factors may have led Lindsay to use drugs and get addicted. Her family life wasn’t easy: Her parents divorced, and her father has said he’s an alcoholic and spent time in jail for various crimes. Though it’s not a guarantee, children of parents who are addicted to drugs are more likely to become addicted themselves.
Lindsay has openly admitted that her home life was quite chaotic. She thinks drinking alcohol helped to recreate the chaos of her family as she got older. Oprah asked, “Do you think you are—or were—addicted to chaos?”
“I think so. It was a comfortable chaos for me,” Lindsay replied.
People can’t actually be “addicted” to chaos the way they are addicted to drugs—Oprah’s phrase was a figure of speech. But researchers have found that a chaotic home environment “primes the brain” for addiction. Lots of studies show that a challenging family life mixed with drugs and alcohol makes quitting drugs difficult, and not just for celebrities.
As a young movie star, Lindsay moved to Hollywood on her own. Without a stable family, she felt all the ups and downs that every teen goes through. And, she felt the pressure of living under the spotlight of celebrity.
The good news is, drug abuse treatment can be effective when the person is ready to make a change and has the support of friends and family.
Today, Lindsay says she is on the road to recovery. She acknowledged she didn’t like what drinking did to her. “I’m in a different headspace now,” the actress said.
The actress is not alone. It is common for people to fall back into drug use. Relapse rates for addiction are a lot like relapse rates for other diseases, like asthma or high blood pressure. Relapse doesn’t mean treatment failed. Learning to live without drugs or alcohol takes time and practice.
Do you think Lindsay’s on the right track this time? What advice would you give a friend who is struggling with addiction? Tell us in comments.
A lot of celebrities are making headlines lately for all the wrong reasons. First we hear about tennis star Andre Agassi admitting to meth (a toxic stimulant drug) use when he was on the tennis circuit (what was he thinking?) and now Tiger Woods, with everyone speculating about his personal problems. All of this news has made SBB think a lot about how we make choices in our lives. Why do intelligent, successful people make bad choices when they have so much to lose—even (and maybe especially) superstars?
We look at this question of personal choices and self control a lot at NIDA while we study drug abuse. Initially, taking drugs is a choice. Over time, drug abuse can become a disease we call addiction. But what makes us risk the consequences of making the choice to try drugs? Not everyone becomes addicted to them, but many do, so why do people risk it?
To find answers, scientists are studying the brain chemical called dopamine. Dopamine gives us a feeling of euphoria, a physical surge of pleasure in response to things we enjoy, which are different for different people. From healthy pleasures, like eating a good meal or scoring a goal, to unhealthy ones, like doing drugs or stealing from stores. Once you become addicted to that rush of dopamine it is hard to stop the behavior. And, once you become addicted it is hard to feel pleasure from the simple things in life—like a great piece of music, holding hands with someone you really like, spending a fun day with the family, or having a laugh with friends.
So how do we avoid making bad choices in the first place? SBB suggests focusing on the genuine pleasures in your life. Fill your day with them. Go shopping with your sister, watch a game with friends, join a club at school, see a movie, read a great book…Protect the simple pleasures in your life—and when it comes to drugs, maybe think about what you might lose.
Guest Blogger, Ethan Guinn, a winner of NIDA’s Addiction Science Award, describes how his interest in science (and video games) has brought him lots of exciting changes and opportunities.
As a high school student, my strong suit was always the sciences, so my senior year I enrolled in an advanced science class called Science Seminar. We were given the task to do our own research projects that we would compete with over the next year. I decided to do a project on video game addiction in adolescents. This idea came from observations of “addictive” behavior in myself as well as many of my friends with regard to our video game playing; I wanted to see if there were more people in our age group experiencing the same or similar problems.
I created a survey to test the prevalence of pathological video game playing in adolescents 12-18. The survey was also used to assess the negative effects that pathological video game playing may or may not cause. My results proved to be quite interesting and when I felt I had a good enough sample, I wrote a paper and created a presentation board to compete with in future science fair competitions. Judges also must have felt my results were interesting because I won every fair I competed in throughout Oklahoma.
After winning the 2008 Oklahoma State Science Fair I was sponsored to go to the 2008 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Atlanta to compete with over 2,000 projects from 53 countries. Here I was awarded a 2nd place special award given by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). I was flown to Washington, D.C., two times to present my project to many NIDA researchers as well as to the director of National Institutes of Health (NIH). After these great honors, things began to settle down and I started college. So my project was put on hold for a while.
Two years later, I was asked by Dr. Michael Rich of the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) at Children’s Hospital, Boston, to intern at CMCH over the summer to try and publish my project. I accepted the offer, surveyed many more students, obtained confirmation of a research grant provided by NIDA, and set off for Boston.
My time spent in Boston was one of the most exciting times of my life. I was on my own in a city very far and very different from my own. But the staff at CMCH took me under their wing and taught me a tremendous amount about the details behind proper research and analysis techniques. I feel that in the 3 months I spent at CMCH, I may have learned more about the scientific process than all of my years as a science student. And to top it all off, I was able—with a lot of help from some great mentors—to finish preparing my project for journal submission, turning it into a manuscript that we hope will be worthy of publication.
For more on Ethan’s project and a video of his presentation at NIH, visit http://www.drugabuse.gov/sciencefair/ScienceFair2008.html
Several SBB readers have submitted personal stories about their experiences—or their families' experiences—with addiction. We offer these stories to give you an inside view of how drug addiction can affect people's lives.
We are posting these comments as we received them, unedited, except as reflected in the Sara Bellum Blog guidelines.
@Dale My son is 33 years old and badly hooked on bath salts. Like the girl that wrote her dad talks underneath his couch because he thinks people are under there my son thinks someone lives in his attic and people are climbing the trees around his house and watching him. He has pawned most of the stuff in his house to get it. I have been thru his coke addiction with him and he was clean for three years. That was bad, but candy compared to this. He has lost his job, his son he raised, most friends & family & hurt me when I refuse to give him money for this. All I can do for him is pray for him.
@James Hi, I was a teenager who abused drugs. Not just cannabis, as in this post, but many drugs. A lot of people believed I was doing it in an act of rebel, a way to say ‘[expletive deleted] you’ to my life and society. In some regards it probably was but a part of it was I was battling some major inner demons, as the case with a lot of kids.
When you’re growing up and you’re falling into a chaotic pit of mental health issues, you can often feel alone. You definitely feel like an outcast. You feel like you’re the only person in the world who’s going through this. “Why me God?” is a common question. Drugs, such as cocaine, induce a sense of euphoria and they allowed me, and probably many others, to forget just for a couple of hours, just to get away. It was bliss.
I am not supporting drug abuse. Drug abuse did more damage to my life than I could possibly imagine. For one, I didn’t go to college nor did I finish high school but that might not have happened anyway on account of being hospitalized numerous times over the course of those years.
My point, however, is to make it clear here that drug abuse is often never just the problem itself. It’s a nasty side effect and, regardless of a suspension or kicking them off the football team, a teenager going through serious issues will never stop. If you want them to stop, get to the root of the issue. Don’t get me started on how wrong it actually is to knock children off their favorite extra-curricular activities because of this. This will do more damage than good.
So yeah, this is my view from a reformed drug addict who is now the lead technical director of a marketing company. I think my opinion counts. I’ve just shared something I haven’t shared in a good few years.
Earlier this month, the TV show “Glee” aired its tribute episode to Cory Monteith and his character, Finn Hudson. Though it’s known that Cory died from a combination of alcohol and heroin, the show didn’t reveal Finn’s cause of death. As one character says, “Everyone wants to talk about how he died too, but who cares. One moment in his whole life—I care more about how he lived.”
There’s truth in that sentiment—how a person dies doesn’t change how much they are missed by those left behind. By not focusing on the cause of death or even mentioning drug abuse in the episode, the cast was able to celebrate Finn/Cory’s life without getting into a complicated discussion about drug abuse and addiction.
But these are complicated problems. Some people may blame Cory for causing his own death through drug use. However, NIDA research shows that once a person is addicted to a drug or alcohol, using is no longer a choice. Blaming people who use drugs leads to stigma—looking at a person negatively or with judgment.
Costars Speak Out
“Glee” didn’t completely ignore Cory’s drug abuse, however. Immediately after the episode, the following public service announcement (PSA) aired:
Cory’s castmates say that he didn’t look or act like an “addict”—and that’s because addiction can affect anyone, of any age and from any walk of life. Addiction doesn’t just happen to “bad” people. It’s not a punishment. It’s a brain disease.
Other “Glee” PSAs urge anyone struggling with drug abuse to “Get Real” and get treatment so they can live their true lives, free from addiction. If you or someone you know needs help, call the toll-free helpline, 1-800-662-HELP.
Watch all the “Glee” PSAs.
Glee PSA: Addict
Glee PSA: Myths
Glee PSA: Get Real
Glee PSA: Future Plans
The SBB has already told you about some of the nasty effects that methamphetamine can have on the body—remember that post about how scavengers won’t even eat the dead bodies of meth users?
Not only can meth mess up your body’s chemical structure and even cause problems with your heart and lungs, it also changes your appearance and behavior. Soon, meth users might not even look or act like themselves.
Bad news for teeth and skin. Ever heard of “meth mouth?” It isn’t pretty. Meth reduces the amount of protective saliva around the teeth. People who use the drug also tend to drink a lot of sugary soda, neglect personal hygiene, grind their teeth, and clench their jaws. The teeth of meth users can eventually fall out-even when doing something as normal as eating a sandwich. As if that’s not bad enough, meth can also cause skin problems-and we’re not just talking about regular zits.
Take a look at these pictures from the Department of Justice—but beware, they are disturbing!
Meth users’ skin can start to look like this because they frequently hallucinate—or strongly imagine—that they’ve got insects creeping on top of or underneath their skin. The person will pick or scratch, trying to get rid of the imaginary “crank bugs.” Soon, the face and arms are covered with open sores that could get infected.
No peace of mind. In addition to the “crank bug” hallucinations, long-term meth use leads to problems such as irritability, fatigue, headaches, anxiety, sleeplessness, confusion, aggressive feelings, violent rages, and depression.
Users may become psychotic and experience paranoia, mood disturbances, and delusions. The paranoia may even make the person think about killing themselves or someone else.
For more information about how methamphetamine could harm your body and mind, read more in-depth information on NIDA DrugFacts.
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.
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.”
More people understand now the harmful effects that smoking has on the body as well as the addictive effects of nicotine. The good news is that teens seem to be getting the message—SBB recently reported that smoking rates among 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders are at an all-time low.
But many teens are still smoking—according to the 2011 Monitoring the Future Study PDF [230 KB], 19 percent of high school seniors reported smoking in the past month.
New NIDA research gives yet another reason for teens to avoid lighting that first cigarette—nicotine may “prime” the brain to enhance cocaine’s effects, making it a very dangerous “gateway drug.” That means it could open the door to other drug use.
Science Suggests that Nicotine Changes the Brain
Evidence shows that most people who tried drugs like cocaine were first tobacco or alcohol users. This concept of “gateway drugs” has been controversial, mostly because people question whether prior use of drugs like nicotine, alcohol, or marijuana actually leads to later drug use. Before now, studies have not been able to show a biological reason why smoking or other nicotine use could increase a person’s chances of using illegal street drugs.
That changed when NIDA researchers found that mice exposed to nicotine in their drinking water for at least 7 days showed an increased response to cocaine. Why did this happen? Researchers recognized that nicotine actually changes the structure of your DNA, it reprograms how certain genes are expressed—in particular a gene that has been related to addiction—and ultimately, it enhances the response to cocaine.
Why did this happen? Researchers recognized that nicotine actually changes the structure of your DNA, it reprograms how certain genes are expressed—in particular a gene that has been related to addiction—and ultimately, it enhances the response to cocaine.
Moving on from mice, researchers looked at statistics in humans—in particular at when people began nicotine use and their degree of cocaine dependence: Among cocaine users who smoked cigarettes before starting cocaine, the rate of cocaine dependence was higher compared with those who tried cocaine first (before smoking cigarettes).
The study doesn’t mean that every person who smokes cigarettes will eventually become addicted to cocaine. But it does suggest that if a person who smokes cigarettes tries cocaine, their brains may have been changed by nicotine to make it more likely that they will become addicted to cocaine.
Need help quitting smoking? Take a look at these resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Is there something magical about drugs and alcohol with us humans? So what's our fascination and why do some of us like them so much?! Actually, before we try and answer that one, let me just say: we are not alone. Some of the drugs we use, abuse, and become addicted to today were actually "discovered" by animals first.
For example, you know why we have coffee today? Well, the "legend of the dancing goats" says that coffee beans were first discovered in a field in Ethiopia by a goat herder who noticed that his goats were acting weird sometimes, running around and dancing wildly. He couldn't figure out why and so decided to study them. He saw them eating small red berries on a certain shrub found in the area—turns out they were coffee plants. After eating the berries with the coffee beans inside, the goats started their "dancing." Legend also has it that the goat herder also started eating the berries and dancing with them!
Plenty of similar stories and observations have been made of other animals that seem to get "high" from naturally occurring drugs or fermented fruits. Cats are attracted to the valerian plant and to catnip, which seems to give them extreme pleasure. In parts of Africa, the marula fruit ripens, and animals—from monkeys to elephants—are attracted to the overripe and fermenting fruits that make them act "funny." Birds have been seen sitting on smoking tree trunks after bush fires and seem to be intoxicated—they get dizzy and fall off of the smoldering trunk only to get up and do it over and over.
Back to our question…so why do we (or at least some of us) and our animal counterparts like these natural-occurring substances and synthetic or man-made drugs? The answer is simple…blame it on our brains! We have evolved a brain that allows us to see, hear, taste, move, think, etc., and also to repeat things that feel good. That happens because a part of our brain sends out feel-good signals when we do something we enjoy, like eating good food, playing a video game, kicking a goal in soccer, listening to our favorite music, or going upside-down on a roller coaster. The system that says to us: "hey, that was good, do it again!" is called the "reward system".
Turns out that alcohol and drugs affect this system really well; they are effective at going right to our brain's "reward system" and putting it into high gear. This very effective stimulation of the reward system is why many people can become addicted to drugs, since feeling good is what drives much of our behavior. Drugs, in a sense, trick the system that has evolved for helping us in our world and instead can turn our world upside down.
As a scientist and Division Director at NIDA, I am committed to learning more about how drugs exert their effects in the brain so that we can come up with better ways to prevent young people from getting "tricked" by drugs and sliding into addiction without even realizing it.
As Director of NIDA's Division of Clinical Neuroscience and Behavioral Research, Dr. Joe Frascella heads up a program that supports studies in humans to advance our understanding of brain and behavior in drug abuse and addiction. Studies are mainly on neuroscience, adolescent development, and treatment, with a goal of translating research results into real-world use.
On NIDA’s Drug Facts Chat Day 2010, scientists answered a lot of your great questions. This one is from “I AM MIKE” from Jefferson Township High School in Trenton, New Jersey: Are you more likely to do drugs if someone in your family does? The short answer is yes, because the risk of developing drug and alcohol problems is higher in children whose parents abuse alcohol or drugs—but it is NOT a guarantee. Research shows that children with parents who abuse alcohol or drugs are more likely to try alcohol or drugs and develop alcoholism or drug addiction. Why?
- Children whose parents abuse alcohol and drugs are more likely to have behavioral problems, which increases the risk of trying alcohol or drugs. They are also exposed to more opportunities to try these substances.
- Plus, children of parents who abuse drugs may inherit a genetic predisposition (or greater likelihood) for addiction—having an “addictive personality,” so to speak.
Of course, most children of parents who abuse alcohol or drugs do not develop alcoholism or addiction themselves, so your genes do not write your destiny to become addicted to drugs. BUT—to avoid that risk entirely, it’s best not to start, and if you’ve already tried drugs or alcohol, stop now. Help Is Out There When someone has a drug problem, it's not always easy to know what to do. If someone you know is using drugs, encourage him or her to talk to a parent, school guidance counselor, or other trusted adult. Confidential resources are out there, like the Treatment Referral Helpline (1-800-662-HELP) offered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which refers callers to particular treatment facilities, support groups, and other local organizations. You can also locate substance abuse treatment centers in your state by going to www.samhsa.gov/treatment.
On February 12, the 54th annual GRAMMY Awards paid tribute to music legend Whitney Houston, who died the previous night at the young age of 48. Early reports suggest that a deadly mix of prescription drugs and alcohol were the cause of Houston’s death, though toxicology results are still pending. It is well known that the six-time GRAMMY winner battled drug and alcohol addiction.
Michael Jackson…Amy Winehouse…and now Whitney Houston. Legendary singers who seemed to have it all—talent, charisma, fame, money, power, family support. And yet, they could not overcome their addiction to drugs. That’s because addiction doesn’t care if you’re famous or rich—once you’re in its grip, the experience is similar for many of the 20 million people in the United States today who struggle with this brain disease.
Why Do People Continue To Take Drugs?
Why do people continue to abuse drugs and, in some cases, combine them with alcohol, when so many others have fallen from doing so? Although Houston entered rehab three times, she is a perfect example of why addiction is defined as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.”
The initial decision to take drugs is mostly voluntary—but after that, a combination of genetics and environment will write the rest of the story. Some people will become addicted and will find it impossible to stop taking drugs without help. Addiction changes the brain’s structure and how it works. Brain imaging studies from people who are addicted to drugs show physical changes that not only affect feelings of pleasure but also judgment, decision-making, learning, memory, and self-control. That may help explain the compulsive and destructive behaviors that characterize addiction.
What Are the Dangers of Abusing Prescription Drugs?
One of the greatest myths about prescription drugs is that, because doctors prescribe them, they are safer to abuse than illegal drugs. But as prescription drugs have become more available, more people are literally dying from their abuse. In fact, every year in the United States, more people die from an accidental overdose of painkillers than from heroin and cocaine combined.
The word “prescription” is not the same as the word “safe,” especially when alcohol is added, which can affect heart rhythm, slow respiration, and even lead to death.
Resources To Prevent Prescription Drug Abuse
Although we can be saddened by Houston’s passing, we can also take a thoughtful look at her experience and learn from it.
NIDA offers many resources so you can learn the science behind what prescription drug abuse does to your brain and body. Are you curious how the choice to abuse prescription drugs could play out? Check out NIDA’s Choose Your Path videos to put yourself in the shoes of a story’s main character.
We do not yet know exactly how Whitney Houston died. We can only guess that her drug abuse and addiction may have contributed to her death. We do know that addiction was a major blow to her life, career, family, friends, and fans, all of whom are experiencing the sad consequences.
Relapse…If you keep up with the SBB you know by now that addiction is a chronic (long-lasting) disease that takes hold in some people who abuse drugs. You may also know that some people can quit their drug use. But often a person will return to using drugs after they have quit. This is what NIDA Scientists call a relapse.
Why does it happen? Addiction changes the wiring of the brain to cause uncontrollable craving and compulsive drug use—despite the consequences. For someone with an addiction, going without the drug for periods of time can make that person feel so anxious and stressed that they need the drug just to stop feeling bad.
A person who is addicted to a drug usually needs professional treatment to quit drug use. This can include medication or "talk therapy (PDF, 1.19 MB)," or a combination of both. It also helps to have support in the family and the community. While quitting drug use is possible, addiction is a long-lasting disease, and treating it takes time-and just because someone gets treatment and stops using a drug does not mean that these strong cravings go away for good, especially when certain cues are present. These cues vary from person to person and can trigger a relapse.
Imagine that your best friend is addicted to cigarettes and says she smokes to relieve stress, but that she recently quit because her boyfriend hates the smell of cigarette smoke. Since she has connected cigarette smoking with stress relief, the next time your friend faces a stressful situation, like a fight with parents or final exams, she will most likely crave a cigarette, increasing her risk of a relapse. Her use of cigarettes, which led to an addiction to nicotine, has also caused her to associate "relaxation" with cigarettes.
Not everyone will relapse once they have quit drug use; it depends on the person, their genes, their environment, and many other factors, including personal commitment and family support.