Drugs & Health Blog

Science for Starters: How Drugs Hijack the Brain

Joe Frascella, Ph.D, Director of the Division of Clinical Neuroscience and Behavioral Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Photo by Robin Stevens Payes.
Sara Bellum
Joe Frascella is Director of the Division of Clinical Neuroscience and Behavioral Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a part of the National Institutes of Health. He’s also an artist and musician.

*Listen Here

Dr. Frascella: At NIDA, we’re interested in how drug abuse affects brain and behavior, so we can learn how to better prevent and treat it.

We’re finding out that all drugs of abuse change the brain. Our task as scientists and researchers is to try to figure out 1) How to prevent the use of drugs that change the brain, and 2) Once the brain has been changed, can we change it back to normal?

We know generally that drugs change the brain in ways that result in some dysfunctional behaviors.

SBB: What does that mean?

Dr. Frascella: Well, for instance, addiction is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and drug taking. That means once you start [abusing drugs], you often can’t stop, even if you want to. That is because your brain has been changed in ways that “hijack” your self-control. So although your initial decision to take drugs was a voluntary behavior (maybe you thought you’d try them out once or twice), it ends up being compulsive behavior, where you are driven to repeat drug use again and again.

Over time, if you keep taking drugs, you’re no longer in control. The drug-seeking urges or drug cravings become so strong that you can’t stop.

SBB: Is marijuana one of those drugs that can hijack the brain?

Dr. Frascella: It certainly could. There are plenty of people who start out smoking pot recreationally. Some people may try it to be “cool” and have fun with their friends. They like it so much, they keep doing it. But 15 to 20 years later, they’re still smoking marijuana every day, once, twice, or three or more times a day. They can’t go to sleep without it; and they have trouble with thinking and remembering things. It becomes a big problem in their lives.

SBB: Does smoking pot have any unique effects when you’re a teen?

Dr. Frascella: We know that the teenage brain isn’t fully developed in areas where making decisions and exercising good judgment (the frontal areas of the brain) are involved. Adding drugs of abuse further compromises those same brain areas, so it’s like a “double whammy.” Because the brain isn’t fully developed, drugs can have a greater effect on it and cause the brain not to function properly.

If you think about a car, drugs push the “go” system, the gas pedal. The frontal areas of the brain are like the braking system. Those brakes are not fully developed, and the drugs are pushing on that accelerator without having brakes. We really need those frontal brain areas to help us weigh two sides of a decision properly and consider the consequences, which we don’t tend to do when we’re young and feeling like nothing can hurt us.

SBB: So we’re speeding through life with no brakes, and whatever is in front of us gets mowed down?

Dr. Frascella: Well, hopefully not. Hopefully we aren’t without any brakes. Our research at NIDA is to figure out ways to enhance those braking systems and come up with therapies that can help teenagers and adults who want to take back their lives from the grip of drugs.

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Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.


If you are a parent or someone who loves an addict, connecting with people who understand what you are going through is so difficult? Where do you go? Who do you talk to? I find a lot of embarrassment and shame follows those of us who have loved ones who are addicts. We don’t need the shame, we don’t need the embarrassment—we need love, support, and real answers!

@MyChild'sAnAddict Dr. Joe Frascella replies: Although it is human nature to feel bad when we, or the people we love make poor choices, it's important to remember that we ALL have the capacity to become addicted. It's brain biology - how we are wired - that may lead an individual to addiction, and it's not just to drugs or alcohol: look around at all of the very obese individuals now. Many cannot “say no” to the “irresistible” foods in our environments. For whatever reasons an individual is drawn to drugs, the choice to take or not to take a drug in the first place is voluntary. When someone becomes addicted to drugs, one’s brain is changed, and that person is no longer in control of his or her drug taking. The drugs hijack the very brain systems that are important in controlling our behavior. It becomes very very difficult to avoid drugs when one’s brain is addicted to drugs.

Remember, addiction is a disease that affects our ability to make rational decisions. These are just people who have a changed brain, and their behavior is no longer under their own control…or at least minimally. They need a social network of helpers in their lives to help them out of their addiction and disease. It is important for family and friends of an addicted individual to understand the nature of this chronic, relapsing disease. It is also important to know that treatment does work and that there is life beyond addiction and drugs.

ya that is 100% true that drugs and like that terms spoil the hearts and brain of the in taker as well as spoil the life of other family member of the people so we have to remove this impurity if the life


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no point of denying this post 100% true everyone should read and unserstand this post and spread this also

thanks for post
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These days teens are getting influenced by drugs and they get addicted to it. Its very important that we help them to overcome their weakness.

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In today's society, drug abuse and dependency is a complex issue as a result of many influential factors that unfortunately continue to influence children, adolescents, adults, and even elderly to use, abuse, and eventually become dependent on such powerful substances, whether illegal or legal. Many lives are losts, destroyed, and ruined in the process that as a society, we are overwhelmed in not knowing how to respond and even what to do. Our young people are exposed to drugs and alcohol on a level that has reached far epidemic proportions where it is now not just a problem to them but family members, schools, and communities in general. Parents need to become more engage in their lives i.e., in every aspect of it from education to establishing honest and supportive relationships to constructive discipline to taking the time to tell them how much worthy and loved they are, regardless of what choices and mistakes they make in life. Too many times, substance abuse not only disrupts the harmony and balance of the home environment but, goes untreated to the point of no return that in fact a love one's mind and way of life has not only been hyjacked but also viewed, in most cases, as hopeless in terms of it being self-destructive not only to the person struggling with substance abuse but, the family as a whole or unit. We must remeber first that "the person first is a human being and not a hopeless and helpless being." To role model change takes courage and much strength in loving those struggling with addiction...you both grow in your understanding of what it means to fight this battle not as leaving it up to the addicted person but, joining in and knowing that what is at stake is a pecious human lives that can be restored, healed, and given hope in overcomming one of mankinds greatest challenge...addiction. Prayers and blessings to each of you to never give up but to take courage and fight the good fight against the "mind changers."

I found out that my son is using marihuana every day ,he says that I'm really sorry that I couldn't stay and talk with you guys for a longer time cause my dad was really hungry and tired and he was in a big hurry to eat. he doesn't need it but is going out of control.I feel like something inside of me is broken I love my son ,he's a good kid he used to have dreams but now he acts like a different person.Please help us!!!!

@Latinmom It is obvious that you love your son and are very concerned about him. It is good that you care so much and wish to help him – support of family and friends is very important. NIDA has a helpful booklet that you may want to look at Marijuana: Facts Parents Need to Know (http://www.drugabuse.gov/MarijBroch/parents/) . You may also want to look at the In Recovery – Steps to Overcoming Addiction blog site (http://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/recovery-overcoming-addiction/) for some helpful information about recovery as well as resources in your community. Good luck!

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