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Brain Drain
Photo: Cecilia Picco
Have you heard that drugs can kill brain cells? It’s true. And even when drugs don’t kill brain cells, they cause changes in the way the brain functions. These changes don’t disappear when a user stops taking drugs. Drugs can change a person’s brain in ways that last for weeks, months, or years. Sometimes the changes are permanent—as in forever.

Ask someone on the street to write a list of harmful drugs, and alcohol probably won’t be near the top. However, alcohol causes all kinds of problems—messing with everything from the liver to the skin to the brain. If you have ever seen a friend get drunk and then they try to do anything—even something as simple as walking to talking—you won’t be surprised to hear that alcohol messes with the brain. But you may not know that alcohol abuse can lead to memory problems and lower IQ long after walking in a straight line becomes easy again.

When your brain needs to communicate with other parts of your body, it uses tiny chemicals called neurotransmitters. Since the brain is in charge of everything your body does, these neurotransmitters are extremely important. Alcohol changes how certain neurotransmitters function.  This, in turn, may cause problems with, um, what was that again? Oh yeah, memory.

It is well known that alcoholism changes the brain and causes problems with memory. But what about people who drink alcohol, yet are not alcoholics? Maybe you know kids who drink a lot at parties on the weekends but don’t drink at all during the week. They probably don’t consider themselves alcoholics and don’t think their drinking will cause any long-term problems. However, Dr. Susan Tapert has studied binge-drinking teenagers and compared them to teens who don’t drink. She found that a part of the brain called the hippocampus was actually shrunken in the teenage binge drinkers. The hippocampus is—surprise—important for memory and learning. Not really a part of the brain you would want to shrink, right?

Harmless Drug?

Like alcohol, marijuana is often considered a “harmless” drug—not in the same league as ecstasy or speed, for example. But marijuana use may also cause problems with learning and memory, even after a person stops using it. Dr. Tapert explains that teenagers who smoke marijuana need to work harder to do simple tasks, even after they have stopped using marijuana for a month. For example, when marijuana users listen to a story, they don’t retain as much information as other people. This probably means that kids who smoke marijuana don’t learn as much from listening to teachers, either. One recent study at Harvard University found that college students who were heavy marijuana users had problems with learning word lists even after the drug was out of their systems. The marijuana had changed their brains—and not for the better.

Do other drugs cause long-term problems with learning and memory? You bet. MDMA (ecstasy) and methamphetamine (speed or meth) both affect neurotransmitters in the brain, and both drugs have been shown to cause problems with learning and memory. Even nicotine, another “harmless”? (and legal) drug, causes brain changes that may lead to memory problems.

Learning and memory failures are not the only problems. Brain changes causes by drugs can lead to other long-term problems as well. Dr. Richard Melloni studies hamsters at Northeastern University. Recently Dr. Melloni investigated the effects of steroids on adolescent hamsters. You might like to think that your brain is a bit more impressive than a hamster’s brain, but there are actually some parts of the brain that are similar in hamsters and people. Dr. Melloni believes that by studying the effects of drugs on adolescent hamsters, he can learn how drugs affect human teenagers.

What did Dr. Melloni find? First, he found that steroids made the hamsters more aggressive, and not just on the day the steroids were injected. The hamsters remained vicious—biting and attacking other hamsters—for two weeks. That may not sound very long, but for a hamster, two weeks is half of its adolescence. This could mean that steroids are capable of changing behavior in a human teenager for two years after use. Dr. Melloni guessed that the hamsters became vicious as a result of changes in their brains. Sure enough, when he examined the hamsters’ brains, he could see that their brains had been changed.

There is debate among scientists about exactly how certain drugs change the brain. There is debate about exactly how changes in the brain translate into problems with thinking and learning. But there is no debate at all about one thing: drugs do change your brain. So if you like your brain the way it is, do yourself a favor and stay far away from drugs.

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By Laura Gehl, Ph.D. Reprinted with permission from Listen. Copyright © 2007 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

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