Drugs Interfere with Neurotransmitters

Drugs can interfere with just about every step in the work of neurotransmitters. To understand this point, consider an analogy. In your apartment you perform various tasks: working on a computer, watching television, listening to music on a stereo system, and more. When you leave your apartment, you make sure the door is locked. You'd hate for people to get a key so similar to yours that they could somehow jimmy your door open and break in. Once in your apartment, they could vandalize your property-take your computer and VCR, break your TV, bust out your lights, or drop your stereo. You could then no longer perform your daily tasks.

Something like this can happen in your brain. Remember that each receptor is designed to bind only a certain neurotransmitter. A drug of abuse that is structurally similar to a neurotransmitter could be a "key" that fits into a receptor's "lock." In this way, the drug could disrupt neuron activity in the same way that an intruder disrupts your apartment and damages your property.

More specifically, drugs can:

The effect of cocaine

One example of drug interference: the effect of cocaine.


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In other words, drugs can damage your intellectual property by blocking nerve impulses, preventing neurotransmitters from getting where they're supposed to be, or producing too many or too little neurotransmitters. As a result, neurons may be overstimulated or not stimulated at all, crippling the nervous system's ability to carry out its functions.

In each of these ways and more, drugs can damage and vandalize the complicated circuit of nerve pathways in your body. Treatment for drug addiction stops this cycle. A network of so intricately designed to reason, imagine, compute, remember, and dream is truly incredible-not something to be tampered with. Central to treatment is the idea that the vast network of neurons in our bodies can be treated with care and respect.


Neurons (nerve cells) are the "brains" of the nervous system. The nervous system serves three functions: sensory, integrative, and motor. Neurons "power" these functions by sending messages in the form of neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters cross the gaps between neurons and trigger electrical and chemical changes.
Neurotransmitters send chemical "messages" between neurons. Neurotransmitters attach, or bind, to certain receptors. Binding creates chemical and electrical changes in the receiving neuron. In this way, binding transduces (passes on) the neurotransmitter's original message.
Dopamine is a sample neurotransmitter useful in understanding addiction. Drugs can stimulate or block dopamine receptors. Drugs can also act directly or indirectly on those receptors. What's more, neurons can become sensitized or desensitized to dopamine. Enzymes and drugs affect dopamine levels.
Other neurotransmitters can be compared to dopamine. These neurotransmitters include serotonin, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, glutamate, and gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA).
Drugs interfere with neurotransmitters. Drugs can affect almost every step in the communication between neurons. For example, drugs may bind to receptors in place of neurotransmitters, block neurotransmitters from entering or leaving neurons, or stop the chemical reactions that create neurotransmitters.



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For more information, call or write to:

Addiction Science Research and Education Center
College of Pharmacy
The University of Texas
Austin, TX 78712
(512) 471-5198

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