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What is Neurotransmission?

A person reads. The words on the page enter the brain through the eyes and
are transformed into information that is relayed, from cell to cell, to regions
that process visual input and attach meaning and memory. When inside cells,
the information takes the form of an electrical signal. To cross the tiny
intercellular gap that separates one cell from the next, the information takes
the form of a chemical signal. The specialized chemicals that carry the
signals across the intercellular gaps, or synapses, are called

Which Neurotransmitter or Neurotransmitters Does the

Drug Affect?
A person's experiences when abusing a drug reflect the functional roles of the
particular neurotransmitter whose activity it disrupts. Each individual neuron
manufactures one or more neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine,
or any one of a dozen others that scientists have discovered to date. Each
neurotransmitter is associated with particular effects depending on its distribution
among the brain's various functional areas. Dopamine, for example, is highly
concentrated in regions that regulate motivation and feelings of reward, accounting
for its importance in compulsive behaviors such as drug abuse. A neurotransmitter's
impact also depends on whether it stimulates or dampens activity in its target

How drugs affects neurotransmission?

Human behaviours and emotions are modulated by neurotransmitters that act as
keys between neurons. The amount of any given neurotransmitter in the brains
circuits is precisely controlled by numerous feedback mechanisms, somewhat the
same way that a thermostat keeps a room around a certain temperature.
Drugs are substances that disturb this delicate balance, because they have
passkeys that let them open certain locks located between the neurons. The
brain automatically adjusts to these substances from outside the body by producing
fewer of its own natural keys. It thereby achieves a new state of equilibrium that
is maintained until the body starts to miss the external substance. At that point, the
person experiences a craving that will persist until the neurons that went on
vacation get back to work.

There are many different chemicals in the brain that function as neurotransmitters, but a
small handful do most of the work.

What it does

What drugs affect it


Involved in regulation of
movement, reward and
punishment, pleasure, energy

Every drug that affects feelings

of pleasure, including Cocaine,
Amphetamine, opiates,
marijuana, heroin and PCP

Epinephrine (also
called Adrenaline)

Excitatory neurotransmitter
involved in arousal and

Norepinephrine (also Involved in arousal and

called Noradrenaline) alertness, energy and feelings
of pleasure

Involved in regulation of mood Alcohol, Hallucinogens,

and impulsivity
Stimulants, Anti-depressants


Inhibitory neurotransmitter
PCP and hallucinogens,
involved in movement, memory Marijuana, Stimulants
function, motivation and sleep

GABA (Gamma
Aminobutyric Acid)

Inhibitory neurotransmitter
involved in arousal, judgment
and impulsiveness


Excitatory neurotransmitter


Substances involved in pain

relief and reward/punishment

Depressant drugs, Marijuana

Opioids, Depressants

How Drugs Work

Drugs make their effects known by acting to enhance or interfere with the activity of
neurotransmitters and receptors within the synapses of the brain. Some
neurotransmitters carry inhibitory messages across the synapses, while others carry
excitatory messages. Agonistic drugs enhance the message carried by the
neurotransmitters; inhibitory neurotransmitters become more inhibitory, and excitatory
neurotransmitters become more excitatory. Antagonistic drugs, on the other hand,
interfere with the transmission of neurotransmitter messages; the natural action of
neurotransmitters is interfered with so that their effects are lessened or eliminated.
There are many ways that a drug can act to enhance (Agonize) a given

An agonistic drug can spur increased production of particular neurotransmitters.

When those neurotransmitters are then released into the synapse, they are more
numerous than they would normally be, and more of the neurotransmitter substances
find their way over to the post-synaptic receptors on the dendrites of the next neuron.
An agonistic drug can interfere with the re-uptake of neurotransmitter substances

which has the effect of forcing them to remain in the synapse and interacting with
receptors longer than normal (Cocaine effects the Norepinephrine and Dopamine
neurotransmitter systems in just this way).
An agonistic drug can bypass the neurotransmitter entirely, and simply float out
into the synapse and itself bind with and activate the neurotransmitter's receptors.
Similarly, there are many ways that a drug can act to interfere with (Antagonize) a given

An antagonistic drug can interfere with the release of neurotransmitters into the

An antagonistic drug can compete with the neurotransmitter for binding to the

neurotransmitter's receptor. The antagonistic drug binds to the receptor but does not
activate it, thus blocking receptors from being activated by the neurotransmitter.
An antagonistic drug can causes neurotransmitters to leak out of their containers
in the terminal button, into the fluid of the pre-synaptic neuron itself, making the
neurotransmitter substance unavailable for release into the synapse. When the neuron
is activated, there is less neurotransmitter available to be released into the synapse.
Most of the drugs that get abused are agonists of various neurotransmitters - they work
to enhance the natural effect of neurotransmitters.