Here at NIDA, we can't learn enough about the brain. Other scientists are brain-obsessed too-there's even a Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to spread the word about the progress and benefits of brain research. This week, people all over the world will take some time to learn about the complex and beautiful brain. So, in the spirit of the week, here's some "brain bits."
Everyone knows that your brain helps you learn-it stores information and helps you put different pieces together to draw conclusions about all sorts of things: from math problems to history essay questions to whether you like the taste of tomatoes.
The brain relies on a bunch of chemicals called neurotransmitters to get messages from one part of the brain to the other. It's pretty amazing how each neurotransmitter attaches to its own kind of receptor-like how a key fits into a lock. Messages zip through the brain on the right routes thanks to this intricate process.
But drugs can really mess up the brain's traffic patterns. The chemical structure of some drugs, like marijuana, imitates the structure of a natural neurotransmitter. In this way, drugs can "fool" receptors, lock onto them, and alter the activity of nerve cells.
The problem is, drugs don't work exactly the same way as the natural neurotransmitters they resemble. So a brain on drugs sends messages down wrong pathways throughout the brain. Marijuana, for example, can alter concentration and memory. Other drugs can literally reset what the brain needs to feel pleasure so that, without the drug, a person dependent on it feels hopeless and sad.
As you can see, the brain is a complex organ, worthy of its own week of honor. Learn more about your brain and the harmful effects of drugs from these resources:
- Most areas of the brain stop producing new neurons (the cells that transmit information from the brain to different parts of the body) after we’re born, but the hippocampus, a structure crucial to learning and memory, continues to form new neurons throughout life.
Recent NIDA-funded research suggests that drugs may reduce production of those hippocampal neurons, which may increase the risk of drug addiction.
- Compared to most people, those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol are more likely to go for instant gratification over long-term rewards. People who are dependent on drugs have trouble remembering the positive and negative consequences of their choices.
A NIDA study found that doing exercises to improve memory helped participants wait for a larger sum of money rather than accept a smaller one right away. This means that memory training may have a place in substance abuse treatment as a way to help patients reject quick drug highs in favor of the longer term satisfaction of a drug-free life.While NIDA scientists are focused on reducing drug addiction and its consequences, their work provides knowledge of brain science that can be applied in other areas of health. Interested in learning more about the brain? Visit the Brain Awareness Week Web site or “Like” the campaign on Facebook.
There’s no better time than the upcoming Brain Awareness Week, from March 11‒17, to learn more about the most fascinating organ in your body.
The included image from the Society for Neuroscience, a partner of the Dana Foundation for Brain Awareness Week, shows some of the most critical parts of your brain.
Here’s what each part is primarily responsible for—and guess what? As the image shows, these are also the brain regions most affected by drugs of abuse:
Prefrontal cortex: This part is often referred to as the “CEO of the brain.” The prefrontal cortex is responsible for critical thinking and abstract thought, as well as many other functions like focusing attention, organizing thoughts, controlling impulses, and forming strategies for future action. The prefrontal cortex is one of the last regions of the brain to mature, so changes caused by drug abuse could have long-lasting effects.
Nucleus accumbens: Part of the so-called “pleasure center,” the nucleus accumbens is thought to play an important role in reward, pleasure, laughter, aggression, and fear.
Amygdala: Research shows that the amygdala has a major role in processing memory and emotional reactions, such as fear. The amygdala is part of the limbic system.
Hippocampus: Also part of the limbic system, the hippocampus plays important roles in moving information from short-term memory to long-term memory.
Ventral tegmental area: This structure is important in thinking, motivation, and intense emotions relating to love.
Scientists are constantly studying the brain and learning more and more about how different brain structures relate to addiction. We know drugs change the brain, but the effects of these changes are not yet fully understood.
Protect your brain. Make the healthy choice to stay away from drugs and alcohol.
What questions do you have about the brain? Let us know in comments. And Happy Brain Awareness Week!