Shoreline Sober Living, San Diego, CA
How does prescription drug abuse affect the brain

The human brain is an extremely complex organ, when an individual takes any form of prescribed drug, the chemicals within that medication disrupts the process in which the neurons send, process and receive signals to the brain via the neurotransmitters. The substances within drugs are incredibly similar to the chemicals already within our body. The medication will specifically target the brain’s “reward system”; this results in the body experiencing a positive “high”. As a result, the brain craves to recreate the positive experience, leaving you needing to feed your system again. Drug misuse can occur extremely quickly, which is why doctors generally only give patients a 3-month dose of prescribed medication.


Prescription drugs are often potent forms of oral medication in which you can only receive through a professional doctor or dentist after a complete analysis of your body. Doctors will only ever prescribe you with a maximum of 3 months regarding any sort of prescription drug, this way they can ensure you are not becoming dependent on the drug, limiting the chance of any form of misuse. Depending on the type of medication you are taking, your pharmacist will counsel you on the potential side effects of the drugs.

Every prescribed medication has a variety of risks that can produce harmful effects on the body, and most importantly, the brain. Doctors and dentists will consider all of the potential risks against the benefits before prescribing any form of medication to a patient. Prescription drug misuse can be just as dangerous, if not even more harmful than illegal drugs when an individual begins to abuse them.


Prescription drug abuse can cause a variety of long-term adverse effects on the brain, many of which can become irreversible. Prescription drug addiction is a complicated disease to overcome, even with professional help, physical changes that happen to the brain can become irreversible. The chemicals within prescribed drugs produce a sensation of pleasure and euphoria, which results in the brain craving a more intense experience each time.

The definition of misusing prescribed drugs means that an individual is taking a form of prescribed medication in a dose or specific manner that has not been defined by a professional. According to NIH (National Institution on Drug Abuse) “The misuse of prescription opioids, CNS depressants and stimulants in a serious public health problem within the USA. Although most people take prescription medications responsibly, in 2017, an estimated 18 million people (more than 6 percent of those aged 12 and older) have misused such medications at least once in the past year.”

These three commonly abused prescription drugs fall into the following three categories, the first being:


Opioids are used to treat patients who have severe chronic pain, to relieve a cough that has caused inflammation and diarrhoea.

Currently, in the USA, there is still a severe opioid crisis which claims hundreds of thousands of lives each year. According to the NSC, over 47,600 Americans died from a prescription opioid-related overdose within 2017. The chemicals within opioids attach to the brain’s receptors that travel to the central nervous system. This then prevents the brain from receiving any form of pain message, leaving the individual feeling a type of high, subsequently resulting in the body craving a higher or more frequent dosage of the prescribed drug to achieve that “euphoria” experience once again.

If this prescription is misused, it can increase a variety of malicious behaviour and severe life-threatening symptoms such as:

  • Severe cravings
  • Irritability and forms of anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Intense tremors
  • Vomiting
  • Dark coloured lips and/or blue skin
  • Inability to speak
  • Shallow, slow breathing


CNS depressants are used to treat patients that suffer from panic attacks, anxiety, tension and forms of sleep disorders.

Prescription CNS depressants act on the brain by increasing the level of activity from the Gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical that slows an individual’s brain activity down. Patients that begin taking CNS depressants will generally feel relatively uncoordinated and sleepy for the first couple of weeks, possibly months. This allows the brain and body to feel relaxed and at ease, once the medication begins to wear off, the brain craves the chemicals instantly. If an individual gives in to the craving and begins to start taking the prescription depressant too often, the mind will begin to become dependent on them to function through daily life. The desire will become more and more intense as time goes by. If an individual begins to misuse the prescribed CNS depressant without informing or seeking professional help, negative symptoms will start to become drastic; these symptoms will include but not be limited to:

  • Confusion
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dizziness
  • Severe headache
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor or lack of concentration
  • Severe seizures
  • Lack of oxygen to the brain
  • Permanent brain damage
  • Slow breathing
  • Hallucinations
  • Overactive reflexes
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Severe cravings


Stimulants are regularly used to treat individuals who suffer from ADHD and narcolepsy.

Unlike the CNS depressants that are used to slow down the brain’s activity, prescribed stimulants are used to increase the overall activity of the brain’s chemical norepinephrine and dopamine. The stimulation will increase attention, energy and alertness. However, if this prescription is misused, it can increase a variety of malicious behaviour such as:

  • Psychosis
  • Anger
  • Paranoia
  • Stomach issues
  • Heart problems
  • Nerve issues


Long-term prescription abuse can cause catastrophic damages to your brain, distorting the chemical system and its circuits for the rest of your life. The chemicals from the drugs intensely target the reward system within the brain, causing dopamine to be released in extraordinarily large quantities, triggering a more intense sense of pleasure each time. In layman’s terms, the chemicals within the drugs will overstimulate the part of the brain that produces natural pleasure, resulting in the natural dopamine not being intense enough.

Due to the intense feeling of pleasure the chemicals within the prescribed drug produces, the users are inclined to use more frequently and significantly larger doses. Continual overstimulation of a human-made dopamine reward will lead to lasting changes to the brain. The brain attempts to compensate for the overuse of drug-using; naturally, it reduces the dopamine it releases, resulting in the individual beginning to struggle to feel any form of pleasure which will, unfortunately, result in the person feeling lifeless and depressed.

The physical changes to the brain result in dopamine levels fluctuating, which will cause the individual’s tolerance to the drug to increase. This results in them having to take a much higher dosage to feel any form of natural pleasure from simple acts such as hugging a loved one. Prescribed drugs, when misused can cause life long, irreversible brain damages, the sooner you seek medical help, the higher the chances of reversing the damage caused.

If you or a loved one have been misusing any form of prescribed drug, you should never attempt to decrease the amount you are taking by yourself. Withdrawal symptoms from these specific drugs can be too intense, and in some cases, depending on how dependent the individual had become potentially life-threatening. Seek a professional and affordable sober living home for a greater chance of attaining sobriety.

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