- Identify stimulants and describe how they affect the brain and body
Stimulants are drugs that tend to increase overall levels of neural activity. Many of these drugs act as agonists of the dopamine neurotransmitter system. Dopamine activity is often associated with reward and craving; therefore, drugs that affect dopamine neurotransmission often have abuse liability. Drugs in this category include cocaine, amphetamines (including methamphetamine), cathinones (i.e., bath salts), MDMA (ecstasy), nicotine, and caffeine.
Dig Deeper: Methamphetamine
Methamphetamine in its smokable form, often called “crystal meth” due to its resemblance to rock crystal formations, is highly addictive. The smokable form reaches the brain very quickly to produce an intense euphoria that dissipates almost as fast as it arrives, prompting users to continuing taking the drug. Users often consume the drug every few hours across days-long binges called “runs,” in which the user forgoes food and sleep. In the wake of the opiate epidemic, many drug cartels in Mexico are shifting from producing heroin to producing highly potent but inexpensive forms of methamphetamine. The low cost coupled with lower risk of overdose than with opiate drugs is making crystal meth a popular choice among drug users today (NIDA, 2019). Using crystal meth poses a number of serious long-term health issues, including dental problems (often called “meth mouth”), skin abrasions caused by excessive scratching, memory loss, sleep problems, violent behavior, paranoia, and hallucinations. Methamphetamine addiction produces an intense craving that is difficult to treat.
Amphetamines have a mechanism of action quite similar to cocaine in that they block the reuptake of dopamine in addition to stimulating its release (Figure 2). While amphetamines are often abused, they are also commonly prescribed to children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It may seem counterintuitive that stimulant medications are prescribed to treat a disorder that involves hyperactivity, but the therapeutic effect comes from increases in neurotransmitter activity within certain areas of the brain associated with impulse control. These brain areas include the prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia.
In recent years, methamphetamine (meth) use has become increasingly widespread. Methamphetamine is a type of amphetamine that can be made from ingredients that are readily available (e.g., medications containing pseudoephedrine, a compound found in many over-the-counter cold and flu remedies). Despite recent changes in laws designed to make obtaining pseudoephedrine more difficult, methamphetamine continues to be an easily accessible and relatively inexpensive drug option (Shukla, Crump, & Chrisco, 2012).
Stimulant users seek a euphoric high, feelings of intense elation and pleasure, especially in those users who take the drug via intravenous injection or smoking. MDMA (3.4-methelynedioxy-methamphetamine, commonly known as “ecstasy” or “Molly”) is a mild stimulant with perception-altering effects. It is typically consumed in pill form. Users experience increased energy, feelings of pleasure, and emotional warmth. Repeated use of these stimulants can have significant adverse consequences. Users can experience physical symptoms that include nausea, elevated blood pressure, and increased heart rate. In addition, these drugs can cause feelings of anxiety, hallucinations, and paranoia (Fiorentini et al., 2011). Normal brain functioning is altered after repeated use of these drugs. For example, repeated use can lead to overall depletion among the monoamine neurotransmitters (dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin). Depletion of certain neurotransmitters can lead to mood dysphoria, cognitive problems, and other factors. This can lead to people compulsively using stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines, in part to try to reestablish the person’s physical and psychological pre-use baseline. (Jayanthi & Ramamoorthy, 2005; Rothman, Blough, & Baumann, 2007).
Caffeine is another stimulant drug. While it is probably the most commonly used drug in the world, the potency of this particular drug pales in comparison to the other stimulant drugs described in this section. Generally, people use caffeine to maintain increased levels of alertness and arousal. Caffeine is found in many common medicines (such as weight loss drugs), beverages, foods, and even cosmetics (Herman & Herman, 2013). While caffeine may have some indirect effects on dopamine neurotransmission, its primary mechanism of action involves antagonizing adenosine activity (Porkka-Heiskanen, 2011). Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep. Caffeine is an adenosine antagonist, so caffeine inhibits the adenosine receptors, thus decreasing sleepiness and promoting wakefulness.
While caffeine is generally considered a relatively safe drug, high blood levels of caffeine can result in insomnia, agitation, muscle twitching, nausea, irregular heartbeat, and even death (Reissig, Strain, & Griffiths, 2009; Wolt, Ganetsky, & Babu, 2012). In 2012, Kromann and Nielson reported on a case study of a 40-year-old woman who suffered significant ill effects from her use of caffeine. The woman used caffeine in the past to boost her mood and to provide energy, but over the course of several years, she increased her caffeine consumption to the point that she was consuming three liters of soda each day. Although she had been taking a prescription antidepressant, her symptoms of depression continued to worsen and she began to suffer physically, displaying significant warning signs of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Upon admission to an outpatient clinic for treatment of mood disorders, she met all of the diagnostic criteria for substance dependence and was advised to dramatically limit her caffeine intake. Once she was able to limit her use to less than 12 ounces of soda a day, both her mental and physical health gradually improved. Despite the prevalence of caffeine use and the large number of people who confess to suffering from caffeine addiction, this was the first published description of “cola dependence” appearing in scientific literature.
Nicotine is highly addictive, and the use of tobacco products is associated with increased risks of heart disease, stroke, and a variety of cancers. Nicotine exerts its effects through its interaction with acetylcholine receptors. Acetylcholine functions as a neurotransmitter in motor neurons. In the central nervous system, it plays a role in arousal and reward mechanisms. Nicotine is most commonly used in the form of tobacco products like cigarettes or chewing tobacco; therefore, there is a tremendous interest in developing effective smoking cessation techniques. To date, people have used a variety of nicotine replacement therapies in addition to various psychotherapeutic options in an attempt to discontinue their use of tobacco products. In general, smoking cessation programs may be effective in the short term, but it is unclear whether these effects persist (Cropley, Theadom, Pravettoni, & Webb, 2008; Levitt, Shaw, Wong, & Kaczorowski, 2007; Smedslund, Fisher, Boles, & Lichtenstein, 2004). Vaping as a means to deliver nicotine is becoming increasingly popular, especially among teens and young adults. Vaping uses battery-powered devices, sometimes called e-cigarettes, that deliver liquid nicotine and flavorings as a vapor. Originally reported as a safe alternative to the known cancer-causing agents found in cigarettes, vaping is now known to be very dangerous and has led to serious lung disease and death in users.
Link to Learning
To learn more about some of the most commonly abused prescription and street drugs, check out the Commonly Abused Drugs Chart and the Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs Chart from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.