What Are Psychoactive Drugs and How Do They Affect Behavior?
Psychoactive Drugs - What Are They?
Psychoactive drugs are substances that act on the nervous system to alter states of consciousness, modify perceptions, and change moods. Psychoactive drugs typically activate dopamine receptors in the reward pathway of the brain - from the limbic system, particularly the ventral tegmental area (VTA), to the prefrontal cortex, specifically the nucleus accumbens. According to estimates, there are 200 million psychoactive drug abusers worldwide. Unfortunately, psychoactive drug use among US high school seniors is fluctuating, from 39% in 1978, to 14% in 1992, and then 25% in 2002. Research shows that the common reasons for using psychoactive drugs are for personal gratification, like having pleasure; for temporary adaptation, as means to reduce tension, relieve boredom and fatigue, and to momentarily escape from harsh realities; curiosity; and, social pressure, that is, to feel at ease in interacting with others. Continued use of psychoactive drugs can lead to tolerance and dependence, also known as addiction. Tolerance is the need to take increasing amounts, or dosage, of psychoactive drugs to get the same effect. Dependence may be physical or psychological, and withdrawal can lead to symptoms, such as insomnia, tremors, nausea, vomiting, cramps, elevating heart rate, rising blood pressure, convulsions, anxiety and depression.
Classification and Types of Psychoactive Drugs
Psychoactive drugs are classified into three - depressants, stimulants, and hallucinogens. Depressants slow down physical and mental activity. Stimulants increase the activity of the central nervous system. Hallucinogens modify perceptions and produce unusual visual images. Depressants include alcohol, barbiturates, narcotics, and tranquilizers. Stimulants include amphetamines, caffeine, cocaine, ecstasy, and nicotine. Hallucinogens include lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and marijuana. Below are brief explanations of the effects of the different types of psychoactive drugs just mentioned:
Alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant psychoactive drug that slows down brain activity on areas involved in inhibition and judgment. It increases the activity of GABA neurotransmitters in the cerebral cortex, cerebellum, hippocampus, amygdala, and nucleus accumbens. The effects of alcohol in the basal ganglia and the frontal lobe are the primary reasons why alcohol drinkers tend to engage in compulsive drinking and develop pleasurable memory ties on past drinking episodes. The effects of alcohol in the body vary across individuals, depending on such factors as alcohol metabolism, body weight, individual tolerance, and amount of alcohol taken. Alcohol is said to be the second most widely used drug in America. Two out of three American adults drink alcohol occasionally, while one of ten American adults drink alcohol excessively, that is, more than five drinks a month. On a survey of 17,000 high school students in the US, 78% have already tried alcohol, 50% of which tried alcohol since Grade 8; 62% of K-12 students, and 23% of K-8 students reported being drunk at least once; and 28% engaged in binge drinking at least once in the previous month. (Note: Binge drinking is defined as drinking five or more drinks in a row at least once in a two-week period.) On US college students, it was found that binge drinking increased for the first two years; that males binge drink more than females; that those who are away from home, especially males living in fraternity houses, binge drink more than those who live with their parents; that half of those who binge drink reported related problems; that those who binge drink are eleven times more likely to fall behind school, ten times more likely to drive drunk, and two times more likely to engage in unprotected sex; and that binge drinking decrease as college students accept more adult roles. According to religion, Catholics, Jews, and Protestants consume high levels of alcohol, but Muslims are forbidden to drink any. The French consume very high amounts of alcohol, and 30% of those who drink alcohol report having health problems; while the Russians drink high amounts of alcohol; and the Chinese drink low amounts of alcohol. Besides health problems, alcohol is also blamed to be responsible for the 12,000 killed and 1.5 million injured drunk drivers in America every year. It was also reported that 60% of homicide cases involve drunken offenders and victims, and that drunken offenders commit 65% of sexual acts against women. Alcoholism is a disorder involving long-term, repeated, uncontrolled, compulsive, and excessive alcohol use, which damages physical and mental health and social relationships. One out of nine people who drink alcohol are alcoholics, and around 14 million Americans are reported to be alcoholics. Alcoholism is apparent in first-degree relatives, and it is estimated that 50%-60% alcoholics are genetically predisposed to the disorder. Although the precise hereditary mechanism for alcoholism has not yet been found, it was shown that alcoholic relatives lack dopamine neurotransmitters in the brain. George Vaillant (1983, 1992) formulated the 1/3 rule for long-term alcoholism. He said that 1/3 of long-term alcoholics are dead or in terrible shape by 65 years old, 1/3 are still trying to beat addiction, and 1/3 are successfully abstinent or only drink socially. Vaillant adds that powerful predictors for successful recovery from alcoholism include negative experience with drinking, finding substitute dependency, developing positive relationships, and finding support groups. It is said that alcoholism is the third leading killer in the United States. Robert Chapman, coordinator of Alcohol and Other Drug Program in La Salle University, Philadelphia, recommends that students who study about drug counseling can gain better insight on the experience of alcoholics by attending recovery-group seminars.
(Fast Facts about Alcohol - medical use: pain relief; short-term effects: relaxation, depressed brain activity, slowed behavior, and reduced inhibitions; overdose effects: disorientation, loss of consciousness, and death; health risks: accidents, brain damage, liver disease, heart disease, ulcers, and birth defects; risk for dependence: moderate physical and psychological dependence.)
Amphetamines. Amphetamines, also known as "pep pills" or "uppers", are stimulant psychoactive drugs that boost energy, keep users awake, and help them lose weight. Amphetamines activate dopamine receptors in the brain, and are often prescribed in the form of diet pills.
(Fast Facts about Amphetamines - medical use: weight control; short-term effects: increased alertness, excitability, decreased fatigue, irritability; overdose effects: extreme irritability, feelings of persecution, and convulsions; health risks: insomnia, hypertension, malnutrition, and death; risk for dependence: possible physical dependence, and moderate to high psychological dependence.)
Barbiturates. Barbiturates are depressant psychoactive drugs that decrease the activity of the central nervous system. They were once used as sleeping aids, but were replaced by tranquilizers because of their addictive potential and relative ease for toxic overdose. Heavy dosages of barbiturates can impair memory and decision-making abilities, and may even cause death, as with some reported cases of suicide. Use of barbiturates can be lethal if combined with alcohol, and abrupt withdrawal often cause seizures. Some examples of barbiturates are Nembutal and Seconal.
(Fast Facts about Barbiturates - medical use: sleeping pill; short-term effects: relaxation and sleep; overdose effects: breathing difficulty, coma, and death; health risks: accidents, coma, and death; risk for dependence: moderate to high physical and psychological dependence.)
Caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant psychoactive drug that boosts energy and alertness. Present in coffee, tea, cola drinks, and chocolates, caffeine is the most widely used drug in the world. Overindulgence of caffeine, that is, consuming more than five cups or at least 500 mg of coffee, is called caffeinism. Symptoms of caffeinism include mood changes or irritability, anxiety, sleep disruption or insomnia, headaches, ringing in the ears, dry mouth, high blood pressure, and digestive problems. Withdrawal symptoms for caffeine are mild and subside after several days. They include headaches, lethargy, apathy, and concentration difficulties.
(Fast Facts about Caffeine - medical use: none; short-term effects: alertness and sense of well-being, followed by fatigue; overdose effects: nervousness, anxiety, and disrupted sleep; health risks: possible cardiovascular problems; risk for dependence: moderate physical dependence, and moderate psychological dependence.)
Cocaine. Cocaine is a stimulant psychoactive drug that gives 15- to 30-minute rush of euphoria, which immediately translates to depression, agitation, and lastly, addiction. It blocks dopamine re-uptake pumps, thus elevating levels of dopamine neurotransmitters in the brain's synapse. However, dramatic and continued stimulation of dopamine receptors immediately depletes the supply of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine neurotransmitters in the brain, the main reason why the effects barely last an hour, and why users easily crave for more. Cocaine comes from the coca plant found in Peru and Bolivia. Traditional Peruvians and Bolivians regularly chew the coca plant, with no adverse effects, because the levels of cocaine present in natural coca plant is relatively safe. However, cocaine extracted from the coca plant, in the form of crystals, powders or chips (also known as crack, which is either smoked or injected), are heavily saturated. Although Sigmund Freud advocated the therapeutic use of cocaine as painkiller during eye surgery, the drug remains illegal in many countries. Cocaine is found to be very addictive, where 50% of those who receive treatment from addiction resume using the drug after only six months.
(Fast Facts about Cocaine - medical use: local anesthesia; short-term effects: increased alertness, excitability, euphoric feelings, decreased fatigue, and irritability; overdose effects: extreme irritability, feelings of persecution, convulsions, cardiac arrest, and death; health risks: insomnia, hypertension, malnutrition, and death; risk for dependence: possible physical dependence, moderate to high psychological dependence if administered orally, and high to very high psychological dependence if smoked or injected.)
Ecstasy. Ecstasy, or MDMA, is a stimulant psychoactive drug that also possesses hallucinogenic properties. Street names for MDMA/ecstasy are NTC, Hug, Beans, and Love Drug. Ecstasy is found to be commonly and illegally used among secondary school students.
(Fast Facts about Ecstasy - medical use: none; short-term effects: mild amphetamine and hallucinogenic effects, high body temperature and dehydration, sense of well-being and social connectedness; overdose effects: brain damage, especially on areas involving memory and thinking; health risks: cardiovascular problems and death; risk for dependence: possible physical dependence, and moderate psychological dependence.)
Lysergic Acid Diethylamide. Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) is an hallucinogenic psychoactive drug that even in low doses, affects serotonin, and possibly, dopamine levels in the brain, producing striking perceptual changes, either pleasurable or grotesque. LSD users report seeing tunnel-like visions, changing shapes, glowing objects, kaleidoscopic colors, and swirling patterns. They experience a sense of slowing down of time, with deep, penetrating, and lengthy examinations of objects. Other psychological effects include extreme anxiety, paranoia, suicidal and homicidal impulses, rapid mood swings, and impaired attention and memory. Physical effects include dizziness, nausea, and tremors. Surveys show that usage of LSD peaked in the 60s and 70s, gradually lowered in the 80s, and suddenly increased among high school students in the 90s.
(Fast Facts about Lysergic Acid Diethylamide - medical use: none; short-term effects: strong hallucinations, and distorted time perception; overdose effects: severe mental disturbance, and loss of contact with reality; health risks: accidents; risk for dependence: no physical dependence, and low psychological dependence.)
Marijuana. Marijuana is an hallucinogenic psychoactive drug that induces in its users a surge of spontaneous unrelated ideas; distorted perception of time and place; raised sensory activity to sounds, taste, smells, and colors; erratic verbal behavior; and impaired attention and memory. Its active ingredient, THC (or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), disrupts neuronal membranes, and affects neurotransmitter and hormonal activities. Physical effects include increased pulse rate, high blood pressure, reddening of eyes, coughing, and dryness of mouth. Regularly consuming large amounts of marijuana can alter sperm count and biological clocks. Psychological effects of using marijuana include a mixture of excitation, depression, and mild hallucination, making the drug difficult to classify. Marijuana comes from the dried resin, called hashish, of the leaves and flowers of the plant Hemp Cannabis Sativa, which originated in Asia, but is now grown almost everywhere. Marijuana is the most widely used drug among high school students. It was reported that 20% of seniors use it for the past 30 days (Johnston & others, 2003).
(Fast Facts about Marijuana - medical use: treatment of glaucoma, chemotherapy-induced vomiting, and AIDS-related weight loss; short-term effects: euphoric feelings, relaxation, mild hallucinations, time distortion, attention and memory impairment; overdose effects: fatigue, and disoriented behavior; health risks: accidents and respiratory disease; risk for dependence: very low physical dependence, and moderate psychological dependence.)
Narcotics. Narcotics, or opiates, are depressant psychoactive drugs that reduce the activity of the central nervous system, like barbiturates. They over-stimulate endorphin receptors in the brain, thus depleting the supply of endorphin neurotransmitters, causing depression and some forms of craving. Users experience euphoric and pain-free feeling, and an overwhelming desire for food and sex. Narcotics/Opiates come from opium and its derivatives, such as morphine and heroin. They are injected intravenously, alarming physicians of its vital role in HIV sharing.
(Fast Facts about Narcotics - medical use: pain relief; short-term effects: euphoric feelings, drowsiness, and nausea; overdose effects: convulsion, coma, and death; health risks: accidents, and infectious diseases, like AIDS; risk for dependence: high physical dependence, and moderate to high psychological dependence.)
Nicotine. Nicotine is a stimulant psychoactive drug that raises dopamine levels in the brain to improve attention and alertness, reduce anger and anxiety, and relieve pain. It is the main ingredient in smoking and smokeless tobacco. Tolerance for nicotine occurs both daily and long-term; and withdrawal symptoms last for months or longer. They include irritability, craving, inability to focus, disturbed sleep, and increased appetite. Wineke et al. (1999) theorize that nicotine damages the genetic make-up of the body. This is because his research shows that age onset of smoking is much predictive of the extent of nicotine damage to the body than heaviness of consumption. Fortunately, nicotine use among American youth is continuously declining since 1998, possibly due to increasing prices of cigarettes, less cigarette advertisements, more anti-smoking ads, increased negative publicity of cigarette-smoking, and the rising negative attitude of adolescents on smoking and smokers.
(Fast Facts about Nicotine - medical use: none; short-term effects: stimulation and stress reduction, followed by fatigue and anger; overdose effects: nervousness and disturbed sleep; health risks: cancer and cardiovascular disease; risk for dependence: high physical dependence, and high psychological dependence.)
Tranquilizers. Tranquilizers are depressant psychoactive drugs that reduce anxiety and induce relaxation. They are one of the most widely prescribed drugs in the US. Some examples of tranquilizers are Valium and Xanax.
(Fast Facts about Tranquilizers - medical use: anxiety reduction; short-term effects: relaxation and slowed behavior; overdose effects: breathing difficulty, coma, and death; health risks: accidents, coma, and death; risk for dependence: low to moderate physical dependence, and moderate to high psychological dependence.)
Drugs and Addiction
Addiction is a pattern of behavior characterized by an overwhelming need to use a drug and secure its supply. There are two models of addiction - the disease model and the social model.
The Disease Model of Addiction. The disease model of addiction describes addiction as a biologically based, lifelong disease, which is inherited or bred into the person early in life. Strongly advocated by the medical profession and Alcoholics Anonymous, the disease model of addiction underscores that an addict may seek medical and/or spiritual treatment for recovery, but that he/she can never fully overcome the disease. Critics of the disease model of addiction argue that the biological origins of addiction are not yet adequately identified, that it does not help addicts pursue and develop self-control, and that addiction is not necessarily lifelong (Grabowski, 1999).
The Social Model of Addiction. The social model of addiction, on the other hand, describes addiction as a habitual gratifying response over drugs, that has developed on the context of social relationships and experience. This model advocates the significant role of strong social support systems for the recovery of addicts.
The following are some characteristics of drug abusers, based on the Rutgers Collegiate Abuse Screening Test. Consider seeking help if you can relate to just one of these:
- I have gotten into problems because of using drugs.
- Using alcohol or other drugs has made my college life unhappy at times.
- Drinking alcohol or taking other drugs might be a reason why I lost my job.
- Drinking alcohol or taking other drugs has interfered with my studying for exams.
- Drinking alcohol or taking drugs has jeopardized my academic performance.
- My ambition is not as strong since I've been drinking a lot or taking drugs.
- Drinking or taking drugs caused me trouble sleeping.
- I have felt remorse after drinking or taking drugs.
- I crave a drink or other drugs at a definite time of the day.
- I want a drink or other drug in the morning.
- I have had a complete or partial loss of memory because of drinking or using other drugs.
- Drinking or using other drugs is affecting my reputation.
- I have been in the hospital or another institution because of my drinking or taking drugs.