The Effect of Drugs on Serotonin

September 23, 2015

An image of serotonin in the brain

When a person uses a drug, he will experience several side effects. These effects include both physical and psychological changes, and can be either short-term or long-lasting. Some of the most pronounced effects of drug use, though, appear in the brain. All drugs interact with the brain in some way, and most affect how it communicates with other parts of the body.

Specifically, many drugs interact with the brain’s neurotransmitters, which serve as the messengers for the brain’s communication system. One type of neurotransmitter is called serotonin, which functions in the brain as a conveyer of feelings of well-being and contentment. Since some types of drugs interact with serotonin, a person’s sense of happiness and well-being can be affected when he takes these kinds of drugs.

Effect of Drugs that Manipulate Serotonin

The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that two neurotransmitters commonly affected by drug abuse are dopamine and serotonin. Drugs that manipulate dopamine affect a person’s motivation, motor functioning, sense of pleasure and the salience of stimuli or events that he experiences. Drugs that affect serotonin, on the other hand, influence the ways that a person:

  • Learns
  • Remembers
  • Sleeps
  • Feels emotions

Prescription Drugs that Affect the Brain’s Serotonin Levels

Many different kinds of drugs affect a person’s serotonin levels and how the brain processes this neurotransmitter, but perhaps the most commonly used type of serotonin-influencing drug are antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which treat moderate to severe symptoms of depression and tend to create fewer side effects than other types of antidepressants.

As the Mayo Clinic describes, SSRIs work by blocking the brain’s reabsorption of serotonin, which appears to help the brain better send and receive chemical messages. This action then helps improve the person’s mood.

Effects of Illegal Drugs on Serotonin in the Brain

SSRIs are a specific type of prescription medication that affects serotonin levels in the brain, but many other types of substances affect serotonin as well. As Jason Socrates Bardi explains, researchers have studied the ways that drugs affect the brain’s serotonin levels. Bardi reports that fluctuations in serotonin may explain why so many people experience depression, anxiety and other symptoms of lowered mood when going through withdrawal. Additionally, the increased levels of serotonin that many drugs create may explain why people continue using drugs, as they want to experience again the high that large amounts of serotonin can produce.

Bardi also describes the complex ways that drugs interact with serotonin in the brain. It’s not always clear how a drug will affect the brain’s serotonin levels, but researchers have discovered that the following substances definitely influence serotonin in one way or another:

  • Cannabinoids
  • Ethanol
  • Opioids
  • Psychostimulants

Specifically, alcohol and cocaine affect the brain in certain but distinct ways. Alcohol, for example, increases the levels of serotonin in very select parts of the brain. Cocaine, conversely, increases serotonin levels generally across many different areas of the brain, and does so by blocking reuptake of the neurotransmitter. Each type of drug interacts with the brain and serotonin in unique ways, and scientists are working to better understand these effects.

How to Get More Information about the Effects of Drugs on Serotonin in the Brain

Serotonin helps a person’s brain regulate feelings of well-being, so it’s important for this neurotransmitter to be operating correctly, and to be released in appropriate amounts. SSRIs help people struggling with depression to regulate their levels of serotonin, but other types of drugs can negatively impact serotonin in the brain because of the ways that changing serotonin levels can affect a person’s mood, memory and sleeping patterns.

If you or your loved one are struggling with drug use and would like to seek treatment, please give us a call at 615-490-9376. Our admissions coordinators are available 24 hours a day to answer your questions.

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