This is your brain on drugs
Updated: April 8, 2013 6:07AM
Emerging statistics now being kept by law enforcement and county coroners reflect a record-breaking trend in the number of heroin-related deaths.
Will County figures reported last month indicate heroin overdoses surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of accidental deaths for the first time since 1999. Many question how young people are becoming addicted to this very serious drug.
Drugs work in the human brain because they mimic the shape of the brain’s normal chemicals. When drugs enter the brain they can “plug into” receptor areas shaped for these special brain chemicals. Once the drugs react with these receptors, they alter the function of the brain. Drugs of abuse engage the areas of brain that control motivation, pleasure pathways, emotions and memory.
Teen brains are very different from adult brains. Recently, scientists discovered that some areas in teens’ brains are fairly well-developed while others require a great deal of developing before becoming fully mature. The area of the brain that houses our feelings, emotions, motivations, memory and the reward pathway is called the limbic system. It is fairly well developed in the teen brain and this leads to teens making more impulsive and emotionally-based decisions.
The brain’s CEO is called the frontal lobe. This brain area controls functions such as setting priorities, organizing plans, creating strategies, controlling impulses, and imagining future consequences of actions. In the teen brain, it still requires much development and will not totally mature until teens reach their early twenties.
This may explain why 90 percent of addictions to drugs such as tobacco, alcohol and even heroin begin during the teen years. Since teens make more impulsive decisions and the area of their brain that sets priorities and imagines future consequences is not fully developed, teens are more susceptible to the lure of chemicals that promise a quick fix to feeling good.
Opiate drugs, such as prescription pain killers and heroin target three areas of the brain. In the limbic system, opiates cause feelings of euphoria and trigger the reward pathway. This stimulation of the reward pathway causes the brain to hard-wire changes in the judgment, learning and memory areas of the brain. Once this happens, the drug user is on the path of addiction.
In the brain stem, opiate drugs relieve pain but also slow breathing and heart rate. Because the heroin or opiate addict takes more of the drug trying to achieve the same “high,” overdose deaths may occur when breathing and heart rate is slowed so much that it stops.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse reports that one out of every six teens has experimented with prescription pain killers to get ”high.” Parents who have opiate pain relievers in their home should make sure that the pills are not accessible to their children.~.
Rose Tenuta is a health educator for the Robert Crown Center for Health Education in Hinsdale.