How Do Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters?

Many people don’t realize how severely drug addiction can damage their brains and bodies. Drugs bind to the neurotransmitters in the brain, thus altering the way a person thinks, feels, and acts. But what exactly are neurotransmitters, and how do drugs affect them?

What Are Neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters are the molecules in the brain that transmit messages between neurons or between neurons and muscles. They release chemicals that affect the neurons in the brain in an excitatory, inhibitory, or modulatory way. 

Neurotransmitters that affect neurons in an excitatory manner do so by promoting the generation of an action potential electrical signal in a receiving neuron. An action potential is a shift, or change, in the electrical impulses of a neuron’s membrane potential. This shift in electrical impulses is usually from negative impulses to positive impulses. 

The neurotransmitters that affect neurons in an inhibitory manner do so by preventing the generation of an action potential in a receiving neuron. The protein receptors that neurotransmitters bind to decide whether neurotransmitters are inhibitory or excitatory. 

Unlike excitatory or inhibitory neurotransmitters, modulatory transmitters can affect and regulate many neurons at once rather than just two neurons. As a result, modulatory neurotransmitters operate at a slower time course than excitatory or inhibitory neurotransmitters. 

Common Neurotransmitters

Most neurotransmitters are either small amine molecules, amino acids, or neuropeptides. All these different forms of neurotransmitters and their chemicals interact in ways that help the nervous system and body function. There are certain key neurotransmitters. These key neurotransmitters include:Neurotransmitters


Dopamine is arguably the most well-known neurotransmitter. It causes people to feel a sense of pleasure or reward as a response to behavior. Behaviors that cause the brain to release dopamine include everything from eating food that one likes to having sex. 

One harmful behavior that elicits the release of dopamine in the brain is drug use. This makes drugs addictive.


Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that stabilizes people’s moods and makes them feel happy. It can also help people sleep, manage their appetite, retain good memory, and maintain good decision-making behaviors. A lack of serotonin can cause people to fall into depression.


Norepinephrine is a stress hormone and a neurotransmitter. When the brain releases norepinephrine, it causes people’s hearts to race and their blood pressures to go up. 

One of the main purposes of norepinephrine is to warn people if they are in danger or in a stressful situation. People also link norepinephrine to mood, arousal, vigilance, and memory.


Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter that sends nerve signals between nerve cells. This neurotransmitter impacts a person’s learning and memory abilities. 

Too much glutamate can overexcite the receiving nerve cell. On the other hand, too little glutamate can make the receiving nerve cell so sensitive that it gets excited. The overexcitement of glutamate either way can cause cell damage or death. 

Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) 

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is essentially the opposite of glutamate. As a result, GABA works by inhibiting neural signals. Too much inhibition of neural signals by GABA can lead to seizures and other problems. 

GABA also helps lay down the brain circuits in individuals that are in early development. Thus, levels of GABA in the brain impact people’s learning abilities. 


Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter that signals the body’s muscles to move. This neurotransmitter also helps facilitate neuroplasticity across the cortex and plays an important role in maintaining cognitive function. Because acetylcholine can stimulate or block a neural response, it can have excitatory or inhibitory effects.

Neurons vs. Neurotransmitters

Substances That Often Interact With NeurotransmittersNeurons are cells in the brain that send messages to one another to make the brain and body operate. Neurons don’t touch one another. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that neurons release to send these messages. 

So, how do drugs affect neurotransmitters? They do it by binding to neurotransmitter receptors in a way that can then excite or inhibit a response from brain cells. Because of this, drugs can affect people’s moods, coordination, heart rates, breathing patterns, learning abilities, emotions, physical sensations, and more.

Substances That Often Interact With Neurotransmitters

Certain substances interact with neurotransmitters better than others. Some of the substances that best interact with neurotransmitters include the following:

Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants

Central nervous system depressants are any substance that literally slows down the central nervous system and the brain’s cell activity. Thus, central nervous system depressants cause people to experience depression-like symptoms. Common CNS depressants include alcohol, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and opioids. 

Central Nervous System (CNS) Stimulants

Central nervous system stimulants are substances that can increase people’s alertness, energy, and attention. Central nervous system stimulants also increase the amount of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. This causes people who consume CNS stimulants to initially feel a sense of euphoria. Substances that are central nervous system stimulants include Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, cocaine, crack cocaine, and meth. 


Hallucinogens are substances that cause people to see, hear, or touch things that don’t exist. All hallucinogens stimulate the production of serotonin. The severity of the effects of hallucinogens is unpredictable though. Examples of hallucinogens include LSD, peyote, and magic mushrooms. 

Dissociative Anesthetics

Dissociative anesthetics are substances that simultaneously reduce pain and disconnect people from the world around them. People that are undergoing painful medical procedures and other forms of intense pain use dissociative anesthetics. 

An example of a dissociative anesthetic is ketamine. Ketamine is a pain reliever given to people that are undergoing surgery. People can also use ketamine as an antidepressant in severe cases. 

Ketamine causes rapid surges in both the glutamine and GABA neurotransmitters. It also affects serotonin neurotransmitters. Ketamine abuse can lead to cardiac arrest, bladder damage, and psychosis. 


Opioid use makes the brain produce more dopamine while preventing the brain from reabsorbing dopamine. This, along with the pain-relieving effects of opioids makes opioids highly addictive.


Most inhalants slow down the brain. As a result, people that struggle with inhalant abuse often exhibit symptoms like slurred speech along with a lack of coordination, a sense of dizziness, and a sense of euphoria. Examples of inhalants include paint thinners, hairsprays, and nitrates.


Cannabis, or marijuana, can interact with neurotransmitters in the brain in a way that changes its chemistry along with its physical makeup. 


Alcohol is likely the most abused drug. Because alcohol is a depressant, after some time, people who excessively drink alcohol may experience symptoms such as slowed speech and movement, sadness, etc. 

Alcohol abuse can shift the brain’s equilibrium. This is because alcohol abuse can cause the brain to release inhibitory neurotransmitters such as GABA. Over time though, the brain will try to start to release excitatory neurotransmitters such as glutamate to get back to equilibrium. 

Alcohol also stimulates high amounts of dopamine in the brain. This causes many people to develop a dependency and addiction towards alcohol.

Long-Term Brain Damage Due to Substance Abuse

When people chronically abuse substances, they can cause so many physical and chemical changes to the brain that it will take more than just becoming sober to get it back to normal. In fact, it can take years to get the production levels of neurotransmitters back to normal. How Do Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters

Thanks to neuroplasticity though, it’s possible to get the brain back to a point where it’s allowing a former drug addict to enjoy the things that he or she once enjoyed while sober. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to make new connections and pathways around damaged parts of the brain. 

Heal Your Mind, Body, and Soul From Past Substance Abuse At Little Creek Recovery

It’s apparent that drugs can have a massive negative impact on neurotransmitters and the brain in general. The negative impact that drug use can have on the brain can be so extensive that it takes years upon years to get one’s brain back to a normal functioning place. To avoid experiencing the horrid, long-term, and negative effects that substance abuse can have on your brain, stop abusing substances today and receive addiction treatment. 

Little Creek Recovery offers inpatient addiction treatment programs just for men and coed outpatient addiction treatment services. Located in beautiful Pennsylvania, Little Creek Recovery is committed to building a strong foundation for recovery by focusing on a 12-step philosophy in conjunction with reality-based therapies. 

Here at Little Creek Recovery, we also make a conscious effort to focus on the spiritual paradigm in all of our treatment programs. That way, Little Creek Recovery patients will be able to treat their bodies, minds, and souls in a manner that will help them sustain long-term sobriety. 

Our primary objective is to help our patients accept their diagnoses as they manage their daily recovery. Acceptance of one’s diagnosis along with learning the ability to ask for help will let addiction treatment patients develop the emotional coping skills that they will need to stay sober in the real world long-term. 

At Little Creek Recovery, we thoroughly understand how do drugs affect neurotransmitters. That’s why we’ve gone above and beyond to provide such a wide array of addiction treatment therapies that will help treat the minds, bodies, and souls of our patients long-term. 

To learn more about Little Creek Recovery and all the addiction treatment and therapy programs and services that we offer, contact us today! We would love to hear from you!


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