October 16, 2012

Just Say ‘Know!’ : Prof. Harris-Warrick discusses The Effects of Drugs on the Brain

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The first frenzy of papers and prelims hit campus these past few weeks, and perhaps you were one of the many students downing coffee or caffeinated energy drinks to help stay awake at 3am in the library. But amid the cramming of Punnett squares, Newman projections and Schrödinger solutions, there was a fury of other biological activities taking place in your brain caused by the caffeine in your drinks.

Prof. Ron Harris-Warrick, neurobiology and behavior and professor of BioNB 3920 Drugs on the Brain, spoke about the effects that drugs and stimulants such as caffeine have on the brain at an event held in Willard Straight, hosted by Cornell Minds Matter, an organization that supports mental health education.

While most people don’t think of caffeine as they think of cocaine and other drugs, caffeine’s addictive properties are similar from a biological perspective.

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is released in your brain as part of the reward pathway when caffeinated coffee is consumed. The neurotransmitter is a chemical signal that is passed from neuron to neuron across a synapse, the point of communication between two neurons. All drugs that produce mood and perception changes affect the brain’s dopamine reward system by affecting the chemical conversation between nerve cells at synapses,  Harris-Warrick said.

This holds true for drinking coffee inside the library or smoking cigarettes outside the pub.  The reward pathway registers values of rewards compared to expectations. If the stimulus is better than expected signals to release dopamine are sent. The dopamine signal is a learning signal: it detects rewards and attaches value to objects and behaviors by activating the reward system, Harris-Warrick said.

Harris-Warrick also spoke of the importance of knowing what happens in the brain when drugs are involved. Cocaine is the best understood model, he said. It hijacks the dopamine reward system by directly activating it and bypassing normal perceptual senses like taste buds or sugar sensors. By bypassing the senses cocaine enhances the release of dopamine so that taking the drug is perceived as highly rewarding. The reward is associated with cues, behaviors or surroundings associated with taking the drug. Cues are often the first steps for many that lead to addiction.

Harris-Warrick spoke about a number of different drugs in his presentation.

Alcohol is a legal drug, and most adults have tried it at least once in their lives. In moderation alcohol usually does not cause problems, he said. Some individuals become addicted, but most do not. The difference is due to genetics. Some people are predisposed to  alcohol addiction, so in understanding the drug’s affect on a person it is important to know that person’s family history.

Other drugs, like nicotine, are more addictive, he said. About one third of all smokers become addicted to nicotine. Another example he spoke about was ecstasy. Ecstasy is sometimes called the love drug or hug drug because it often enhances empathy in the user.

It has more psychological effects that most other drugs and produces a long lasting loss of the mood regulating neurotransmitter serotonin function in the brain, from which the brain may never fully recover. Abusing ecstasy may cause depression and decreased cognitive ability.

Even though addiction occurs in the same way for all psychoactive drugs, it is important not to group all drugs as the same because the consequences and effects on life are different, said Harris-Warrick.

“Knowledge is strength,” he said. “It helps you make intelligent decisions. Intelligent decisions are made based on knowing consequences of behavior.”

Drugs have a powerful effect on the brain, because it changes the brain’s biochemistry and treatment for drug addiction is not merely stopping the act of using the drug. There is no single method of treatment; a battery of treatments like medical treatment, psychiatric therapy, and social therapy. may be necessary to help.

Harris-Warrick said however, that the most important aid in overcoming drug abuse is a supportive environment. It is also important to recognize the role of friends in recognizing when someone needs help and in supporting someone.

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Original Author: Lisa Gibson