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DrugFacts: Drug abuse and drug addiction

Updated in December 2012

Many people do not understand how or why some become drug addicts. It is
often wrongly assumed that drug addicts have no moral principles or sufficient
will and they may stop taking drugs if only they were willing to change their
behavior. Actually, drug addiction is a complex disease and stop using drugs
does not occur with the simple intention or determination to do so. In fact,
because drugs change the brain in a way that foster compulsive abuse, stop
using drugs is difficult, even for those who are willing to do. Thanks to scientific
advances, we now know much more accurately how drugs work in the brain
and we know that the drug itself can be successfully treated, thus helping the
addict to stop using drugs and return to a productive life.

Drug abuse and addiction have negative consequences for both individuals and
for society. By some estimates, the total cost of substance abuse in the United
States, including costs related to lost productivity, health and crime, exceeds
600 billion dollars annually. This figure includes approximately $ 193 billion for
illicit drugs, $ 1 193 billion by tabaco2 and $ 235 billion by alcohol3. Despite
how overwhelming it is these figures fail to convey the true destructive impact
fully involving drug abuse and drug addiction on health and public safety,
including the disintegration of the family, job loss, failure in school, domestic
violence and child abuse.

What is drug addiction?

Addiction is a chronic brain disease, often relapsing, characterized by the

search and compulsive drug use despite harmful consequences for the
addicted person and those around him. While it is true that for most people the
initial decision to take drugs is voluntary, over time the changes that occur in
the brains of addicts can affect self-control and hinder their ability to withstand
the intense pulses consume drugs.

Fortunately, there are treatments that help counteract the strong harmful
effects of addiction. Research shows that the best method to ensure success
for most patients is a combination of behavioral therapy with medications to
treat addiction. You can achieve a sustained recovery and a life without drug
abuse using approaches designed to treat specific pattern of abuse of drugs for
each patient in conjunction with any concurrent medical, psychiatric or social

Like many other chronic, relapsing diseases, such as diabetes, asthma or heart
disease, drug addiction can be treated successfully. However, like other chronic
diseases, it is also common to have the addict relapses and return to drug use.
These relapses, however, does not mean that the treatment has failed. Rather,
they are a sign that should be reinstated or adjusted treatment or an
alternative treatment that is necessary for the person to regain control and can

What happens to your brain when drugs are used?

Drugs contain chemicals that infiltrate the brain's communication system

disturbing the sending, receiving, and normal processing of information
between nerve cells. There are at least two ways that drugs can do this: 1)
mimicking the natural chemical messengers in the brain and 2) overstimulating
the "reward circuit" of the brain.

Some drugs such as marijuana and heroin are similar to that of certain
chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, the brain naturally occurring
structure. This similarity allows drugs "trick" the brain's receptors and activate
nerve cells to send abnormal messages.

Other drugs, such as cocaine or methamphetamine, can cause the nerve cells
to release excessively high amounts of natural neurotransmitters (especially
dopamine) or can block the normal recycling of these chemicals in the brain,
which is necessary to cut the sending and receiving of signals between
neurons. The result is that the brain is saturated dopamine. Dopamine is a
neurotransmitter present in regions of the brain that control movement,
emotion, motivation and pleasurable sensations. The reward system normally
responds to natural behaviors related to survival (eating, spending time with
loved ones, etc.), but when he is overstimulated by psychoactive drugs
produces euphoric effects. This reaction starts a vicious cycle of reinforcement
"teaches" people to repeat the behavior that caused drug abuse gratification.

When a person continues to abuse drugs, the brain adapts to the overwhelming
surges in dopamine by producing less dopamine or by reducing the number of
dopamine receptors in the reward circuit. The result is less impact on the
dopamine reward circuit, which limits the pleasure that the user is able to
derive not only drugs, but also on events in your life that previously caused him
pleasure. This decrease in pleasure forces the addict to continue abusing drugs
in an attempt to regain normal function of dopamine. Furthermore, now you
need to consume a greater amount of drug in an attempt to increase the
function of dopamine to its original normal level. This effect is called tolerance.

The long-term abuse causes changes in other systems and circuits in the brain
chemicals. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that influences the reward circuit
and the ability to learn. When drug abuse alters the optimal concentration of
glutamate, the brain attempts to compensate, which can impair cognitive
function. Imaging studies of the brains of drug addicts show changes in areas
of the brain critical to judgment, decisionmaking, learning, memory and
behavior control. Taken together, these changes can make the addict locate
and use drugs compulsively despite knowing the adverse consequences, and
even devastating, associated with their behavior. This is the nature of

Why do some people become addicted to drugs and others do not?

No single factor determines whether a person will become addicted to drugs.

The risk of developing this disease is influenced by a combination of factors
including the biological makeup of the individual, the social environment and
the age or stage of development in which it is located. The more risk factors
you have, the greater the likelihood that the drug will become addicted. For

Biological constitution: The genes we are born, in combination with

environmental influences are responsible for about half of vulnerability to
addiction that the person has. Sex, ethnicity and presence of other mental
disorders may also influence the risk for drug abuse and drug addiction.

Environment or environment: The environment of each person involves many

factors, from family and friends to socioeconomic level and quality of life in
general. Certain factors such as social pressure from friends or colleagues,
physical or sexual abuse, stress and quality of parenting that have given
parents, can have a big influence on whether a person comes to drugs and if it
progresses to drug addiction.

Stage of Development: Genetic and environmental factors interact with critical

stages of human development affecting susceptibility to addiction. While drug
use at any age can lead to addiction, the earlier you start using drugs, the
greater the likelihood of progressing to abuse and addiction. The truth is that
any exposure to drugs of abuse is a special challenge for teens. As the areas of
the brain that govern decision-making, judgment and self-control are still
actively developing during adolescence, young teens may be especially prone
to risk behaviors, which include experimentation with drugs of abuse.

The key is prevention

Drug addiction is a disease that can be avoided. The results of research funded
by the NIDA have shown that prevention programs that involve the family,
school, community and the media are effective in reducing drug abuse. While
many events and cultural factors affecting trends in drug abuse when young
people perceive that the drug is harmful, a decrease is observed in the
tendency to consume. Therefore, education and community activism are key to
helping young people and the general public understand the risks of drug
abuse. Teachers, parents, doctors and other public health professionals must
continue sending the message that drug addiction can be avoided if the person
never use drugs.

For more information

For more information on drug abuse and addiction, please see our brochure
Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction

You can also visit the English page of information on prevention research. For
information in Spanish, you can see our DrugFacts on lessons learned from
research on prevention or our book entitled Preventing drug use in children and

In turn, you can visit the website in English with information on research on
treatments. For information in Spanish, please see our book Principles of Drug
Addiction Treatment: A Research Based Guide, the DrugFacts approaches to
drug treatment or Research Report The therapeutic community.

To find a treatment center with public funding in your state, please call 1-800-
662-4357 (1 800-662-HELP) or go to:


National Drug Intelligence Center (2011). The Economic Impact of Illicit Drug
Use on American Society. Washington DC: United States Department of Justice.
Available in:
(PDF, 2.4MB)

Why is the article interesting?

Porque hbala hacerca de la dependencia hacia las drogas y sus factores

biolgicos psicolgicos y psicosocielas y da un enfoque mas cercano al porque
las personas las consumen y que es lo que sientesn a niveles biolgicos lo que
les causa satisfaccin consumirlas y en que medidad

Which are the most important points on it?

Bueno los puntos mas importantes es cuando explica que es lo que pasa en el
cerebro cuando las consumes el poruqe delas adicciones en algunas personas
donde se desemvuelven temas como el medio ambiente las causas biolgicas
y en la etapa de desarrollo

How can the article help me profesionally speaking?

Me puede ayudar para saber que es lo que pasa en clientes que puedan tener
cierta dependencia a las drogas y saber como ayudarlas en cuestiones
psicolgicas para adaptarlas de nuevo al mundo exterior y saber que es lo que
ellos sienten por consumirlas,
How does marijuana affect the brain?

Marijuana has effects on the brain in the short and long term.

Image of a cross section of the brain indicating the areas that THC has an effect
on the cerebro.El THC acts in several areas of the brain (yellow dots).

Short-term effects

When a person smokes marijuana, THC rapidly passes from the lungs into the
bloodstream. Blood carries this chemical to the brain and other organs in the
body. When a person eats food or drinks with THC, the body takes longer to
absorb. In this case, the effects can start to feel 30 minutes or an hour later
after eating.

THC acts on certain receptors in the brain cells which naturally react to
chemicals in the brain that are similar to THC. These natural chemicals are part
of the development and normal brain functioning.

Marijuana produces an excessive reaction on the parts of the brain that have
these receptors. This reaction is what causes the feeling "doped".

Other effects are:

altered perceptions (for example, see brighter colors)

have an altered perception of time

sense changes in mood

motor incoordination

difficulty in thinking and problem solving

memory problems

Long-term effects
Marijuana also affects brain development. When people start using marijuana
during adolescence, the drug can reduce the mental faculties to think,
remember and learn, and affect how the brain builds certain connections
between different parts of the brain needed to perform these functions. The
effects of marijuana on these functions can take a long time and may even be

For example, one study showed that people who started smoking marijuana
during adolescence, constantly or hardened form and ended up developing a
disorder of cannabis use, lost an average of 8 points in IQ between 18 and 38
years old. Lost mental abilities are not fully restored in those who stopped
smoking marijuana in adulthood. Those who started smoking marijuana in
adulthood showed no significant declines in IQ (Meier, 2012).

THC levels have increased in marijuana. THC levels in marijuana have gradually
increased in recent decades (Mehmedic, 2010). For someone new to the use of
marijuana, this could mean being exposed to a higher level of THC and be at
greater risk of having a harmful reaction. The highest levels of THC in
marijuana could explain why growth in the number of room visits related to the
use of marijuana emergencies.

The popularity of marijuana edible products, also increases the possibility of a

preliminary reaction. These take longer to digest and take longer to produce its
effect. Therefore, people may tend to consume more in order to feel the effects
sooner, putting them at risk.

The dabbing has also become a practical fashion. More people are using
marijuana concentrates with higher doses of THC, which causes stronger
effects (see "Extracts of marijuana").

For those using high doses of marijuana frequently, the highest levels of THC
may mean an increased risk of addiction.

What are other effects of marijuana on health?

The use of marijuana can have a wide range of effects on physical and mental

Effects on physical health

Breathing problems. The marijuana smoke irritates the lungs, and frequent
marijuana smokers can have many of the same respiratory problems
experienced by smokers snuff. These problems include chronic cough and
phlegm production, more frequent respiratory disease and an increased risk of
lung infections. Until now, researchers did not know whether marijuana
smokers have a higher risk of lung cancer.
Elevated heart rate. Marijuana increases heart rate, this effect can last up to 3
hours after smoking. This can increase the risk of a heart attack. The elderly or
those with heart problems may be at even higher risk.

Problems with the development of the baby during and after pregnancy. The
use of marijuana during pregnancy is associated with a higher risk of
behavioral problems and problems with brain development of the baby. If a
pregnant mother uses marijuana, the drug can affect the development of
certain parts of the brain of the baby. Among the deficiencies that can be
caused to the baby are having difficulty paying attention, problems with
memory and the ability to solve problems. In addition, some studies have found
moderate amounts of THC in breast milk of nursing mothers. The effects this
may have on brain development of the baby are not yet known.

Effects on mental health

Photo showing the silhouette of a seated and bent his head resting on his hand

Frequent use of marijuana in some people associated with mental illnesses

such as:

Hallucinations temporary-sensations and images that seem real but are not

Paranoia temporary-feel extremely suspicious of other people for no reason

Worsen symptoms in people with schizophrenia (a mental disorder with

symptoms such as hallucinations, paranoia and disorganized thinking)

The use of marijuana has also been linked with other mental problems, such as:



suicidal thoughts among adolescents

How can affect the use of marijuana a person's life?

Compared with those who did not use marijuana, those who use it frequently
tend to:

be less satisfied with their lives

have poor mental health

have poor physical health

have more problems in their relationships

Those who use also tend to have poorer academic performance and less
professional success. For example, marijuana use is associated with a higher
risk of dropping out of high school (McCaffrey, 2010). It is also related to more
absences, accidents, and injuries (Zwerling, 1990).

Is marijuana addictive?

Contrary to popular belief, marijuana can be addictive. Research has shown

that become approximately 1 in 11 people who use marijuana addicts
(Anthony, 1994; Lopez-Quintero, 2011). This risk increases in those beginning
during adolescence (with a risk of 17 percent, or about 1 in 6 people) (Anthony,
2006) and those who use marijuana daily (to a risk between 25 and 50 percent
(& Pacula Hall, 2003).

What kinds of treatments are available for marijuana addiction?

People who have been using marijuana have long shown feel withdrawal
symptoms when stopping the drug, which makes it more difficult to leave.
Some of the symptoms include:


difficulty sleeping

lack of appetite



Behavioral support techniques have proven effective as a treatment for

marijuana addiction. Examples include the use of therapies and motivational
incentives (they provide some reward patients who remain drug free). So far
there are no medications for treating marijuana addiction. However, they are
still conducting investigations that could lead to the creation of new medicines
to help with withdrawal symptoms, to block the effects of marijuana and
prevent relapse to marijuana use.

Points to remember

Marijuana refers to the dried leaves, flowers, stems and seeds of the hemp, or
Cannabis sativa plant.

The plant contains the chemical delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and other

similar compounds that alter the mind.
People use marijuana in several ways, by smoking, ingirindola, taking or

The compounds of smoking marijuana extracts high in THC (commonly called

dabbing) continues to increase.

THC produces an excessive reaction in certain brain receptors, resulting in

effects such as:

distorted perception

mood swings

motor incoordination

difficulty in thinking and problem solving

learning and memory problems

The use of marijuana can have a wide range of effects on mental and physical
health, some of them are:

breathing problems

risk of causing brain damage to the baby if the mother uses marijuana during

hallucinations and paranoia

THC levels in marijuana have gradually increased, causing more dangerous to

those who use marijuana effects.

Marijuana can be addictive.

Among the treatments for addiction to marijuana are behavioral support

techniques. So far no medication for treating marijuana addiction.

Additional Information

For more information about marijuana and marijuana use, visit:

For more information about medical marijuana and state marijuana laws, visit:

Monitoring the Future study (Monitoring the Future)

Learn more about the Monitoring the Future survey, which measures drug,
alcohol and snuff and attitudes related to drug use among adolescent students
nationwide annually:


Anthony JC. The epidemiology of cannabis dependence. In: Roffman RA, RS

Stephens, eds. Cannabis Dependence: Its Nature, Consequences and
Treatment. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Why is the article interesting?

Bueno ya que el tema de la legalizacin de esta planta es muy populas hoy en

dia me interoso saber mas del tema ya que quera saber que efevtos en el
cerebro tiene la marihuana al consumirla ya sea como lo plantea el articulo a
lar corto y mediano plazo

Which are the most important points on it?

Los puntos mas importantes es cuando habala de que repercusiones trae a la

salud mental en la salud de nuestrop cerebro la salud fsica y como afecta todo
esto en el desarrollo neuronal y fsico en una persona y como poder ayudar a
las personas si sonm adictas

How can the article help me profesionally speaking?

Me ayuda para saber que tipo de tratamientos pueden ayuadr a un paciente

con estas afectaciones y saber como es el tratamiento conductual para desviar
las causas mas importantes de la diccin