Mechanism of Action

Inhalants enter the bloodstream quickly and are then distributed throughout the brain and body. They have direct effects on both the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (nerves throughout the body).

Using brain imaging techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers have discovered that there are marked structural changes in the brains of chronic inhalant abusers. These changes include a reduction in size in certain brain areas, including the cerebral cortex, cerebellum, and brainstem. These changes may account for some of the neurological and behavioral symptoms that long-term inhalant abusers exhibit (for example, cognitive and motor difficulties). Some of these changes may be due to the effect inhalants have on myelin, the fatty tissue which insulates and protects axons and helps speed up nerve conduction. When inhalants enter the brain and body, they are particularly attracted to fatty tissues. Because myelin is a fat, it quickly absorbs inhalants, which can then damage or even destroy the myelin. The deterioration of myelin interferes with the rapid flow of messages from one nerve to another.

Inhalants can also have a profound effect on nerves that are located throughout the body. The polyneuropathy caused by some inhalants, as well as other neurological problems, may be due in part to the effect of the inhalants on the myelin sheath that covers axons throughout the body. In some cases, not only is the myelin destroyed, but the axons themselves degenerate.

The following activities, when used along with the magazine on inhalants, will help explain to students how these substances change the brain and the body.

This publication is available for your use and may be reproduced in its entirety without permission from NIDA. Citation of the source is appreciated, using the following language: Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.