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Addiction and Substance Abuse

Use, Abuse, and Addiction to Mood Altering Drugs

Mood Altering Drugs

Human beings have used mood-altering drugs - or drugs of potential abuse - for hundreds of thousands of years. People use these drugs because they produce quick surges of a neurotransmitter, or brain chemical called dopamine. Dopamine, when released in the brain, makes people feel pleasure or euphoria, or, in other words, "high."


Classes of Mood altering Drugs

Mood altering drugs don't just affect dopamine, they also have many other brain effects. It is these other brain effects that help us decide what class the drug belongs to. There are four main classes of mood altering drugs: Stimulants, Opioids, Sedative Hypnotics, and Hallucinogens. The table below lists the drugs that fall into each of these classes.


Stimulants Opiods Sedative Hypnotics Hallucinogens
 "Ecstacy" or MDMA
 "Bath Salts"

 Prescription Psycho-  stimulants:
  • Amphetamine
  • Methylphenadate
  • Cylert
  • Dexadrine
  • Diet pills
 Prescription opioids
  • Codeine
  • Morphine
  • Hydromorphone
  • Oxycodone
  • Methadone
  • Buprenorphine

  • Diazepam
  • Lorazepam
  • Clonazepam
  • Aprazolam
  • Rohypnol
  • etc.,
     - Soma
     - Fiorinal
     - Fioricet
 Jimson weed


Stimulants result in the release of varying amounts of norepinephrine or adrenalin, some other brain chemicals, in addition to dopamine. Stimulants can cause:

Opioids are natural or synthetic compounds related to opium, that effect the mu or morphine receptor in the brain. They can cause:

Sedative hypnotic drugs work on the GABA (gamma-aninobutyrate) receptor system of the brain. GABA neurons are cells that excite and activate the brain, leading to wakefulness and at times even anxiety. These drugs tend to depress or quiet down GABA nerve cells, causing:

These sedative hypnotics range from relatively weak substances like alcohol to very potent ones like the "date rape" drug rohypnol. They can be especially dangerous because their strength gets increased when they are used in combination, which increases the chances of serious over-dose.

Hallucinogens alter perception as part of their central nervous system or brain effect. This group includes LSD, phencyclidine (PCP), marijuana, and a variety of plants. Hallucinogens cause a low degree of judgment impairment when users become intoxicated. The altering of perception seems to include many different effects such as visual distortions, spatial distortions, and loss of time perception.


The Continuum of Mood Altering Drug Use

Alcohol use and other drug use exist in our society as a gradual continuum. There are four different levels of use: abstinence, low risk or casual use, risky use or "substance abuse", and chemical dependence or addiction.

Abstinence: People who abstain do not use any mood altering drugs, not even in low risk amounts. People who abstain are likely to have:

Low Risk Use: Low risk users use mood altering drugs occasionally. They do not binge, use only in socially acceptable situations, and have little, if any, evidence of health risk from their use. The Federal Government has published Sensible Drinking Guidelines for adult men and women that provide clear information about what drinking levels are associated with no detectable health risks.

One difference between low risk users and people with addiction problems is that "social users" never have to try to limit their use, make up rules around their use, or cut back on their use because of an embarrassing situation etc. People with addiction problems do these things in an effort to become social users.

Substance Abuse: Substance abusers use more alcohol than is considered "healthy," or use any amounts of non-alcohol mood altering drugs. Substance abusers binge at levels that can be risky to their health, and use to levels of intoxication that significantly impair their judgment and moral values. They do not, though, meet the criteria for chemical dependence or addiction. Substance abuse is a behavior that many people participate in during their late teens and early 20's. This behavior can evolve either into low risk use or addiction. Substance abusers have control over their use, unlike people who are addicted, and many people who abuse drugs don't have problems caused by their drug abuse.

Although not a disease or illness, substance abuse is still responsible for a tremendous amount or pain and suffering in our society, including unanticipated pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, "date rapes," other violence between young people, and destruction of property.

Many substance abusers "grow out of" using to risky levels. Some people who behave like "abusers" are probably addicted. People who are addicted will use more and more often over time, while others in their peer group use less and less often.

Chemical Dependence or addiction is a chronic disease of the brain. Addiction has nothing to do with a person's morals, education, social class or ethnicity. It is a primarily genetic illness that runs in families. Doctors and other professionals use this definition: Addiction is characterized by the repetitive, intermittent, loss of control over the use of a mood altering drug that causes problems in a person's life. Addiction is not defined by how much or how often people use - it is defined by what happens when they use.

People who are addicted will experience problems in these areas:

Addiction causes overwhelming problems in our society. Some of the consequences of addiction include:

Addiction also costs our society money: The economic costs of addiction are estimated at 80-110 billion dollars per year.


Hope Through Research - You Can Be Part of the Answer!

Many research studies are underway to help us learn about drug abuse. Would you like to find out more about being part of this exciting research? Please visit the following links:


For more information:

Go to the Addiction and Substance Abuse health topic, where you can:

This article is a NetWellness exclusive.

Last Reviewed: Oct 08, 2011

Associate Professor of General Medical Sciences
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University