In my previous research round, I mentioned how it would be the last one I would be doing for this cycle. However, I decided to make another research round about my topic and take my injury question further! For those who haven’t been following my forum, my inquiry question for this cycle is: “what does it mean to be conscious?” In this round, I’ll be looking into psychoactive drugs to broaden the understanding of the connection between consciousness and unconsciousness. While we all experience altered states of consciousness in the form of sleep on a regular basis (as mentioned in depth in my second research round), some people use drugs and other substances that result in altered states of consciousness as well. You would be surprised on the role they take on society. Psychoactive drug that are often used include coffee, alcoholic beverages, sleeping pills and medicine. Evidently, psychoactive drugs change our perceptions and hold a strong impact on the brain. In other words, there is a relationship between psychoactive drugs, the brain and psychosis. For those who don’t know, psychosis is an abnormal condition of the mind that results in difficulties determining what is real and what is not. For this research round, I’ll be looking into what psychoactive drugs are, how they are classified, the different types, its effects how it affects the brain, neurotransmitters and the consciousness.
If any one is interested to view a crash course about altered states, click here:
Now, let us begin the round!
What is it?
A psychoactive drug is a chemical that changes our states of consciousness, and particularly our perceptions and moods.
-->These drugs are commonly found in everyday foods and beverages, including chocolate, coffee, and soft drinks, alcohol (1). These substances are legally available; however, they can still be physically and psychologically harmful if one takes it in excess (2). They are also found in over-the-counter drugs which includes aspirin, Tylenol, and cold and cough medication. Furthermore, psychoactive drugs are also frequently prescribed as sleeping pills, tranquilizers, and antianxiety medications. They may also be taken illegally for recreational purposes (1). Other times, psychoactive drugs are used to alter someone's mental state in order to exploit the individual although this may not always be the intention. Consequently, one should also be aware that taking psychoactive drugs in ways other than intended. For example, one shouldn’t be taking drugs which have been prescribed for someone else, even if they have been given to you. This is illegal. Furthermore, another common example of this is the date-rape drug Rohypnol which is also illegal. There are also natural substances that are psychoactive. These include hallucinogenic mushrooms and cacti, and the leaves, flowers, and buds of certain plants. Sometimes, they are even more harmful than manufactured drugs. For example, someone who uses a psychoactive plant to alter his or her mental state may have a higher risk of overdose or poisoning. This is due to the person taking the substance having no control over the strength of the plant's psychoactive substance or toxicity. One would have more control in manufactured drugs (2).
-->A drug or medication that's termed "psychoactive" isn't always necessarily addictive.
-->The three primary classes of psychoactive drugs I'll be looking into depth are stimulants, depressants and hallucinogens. I will be looking into detail of these classes in later in this round.
How are they classified?
-->By their common effects on the brain and body
-->By their capability to result in addiction and abuse
-->By their chemical structure (2).
What are the effects of psychoactive drugs?
Psychoactive drugs affect the body’s central nervous system. With the ability to change the brain’s functionality, they quickly alter mood, perception, and consciousness. For moderate uses of common psychoactive drugs, one would undergo mood changes. They would feel “better”, more alert, or relaxed. However, common side effects of abusing these drugs include agitation, disorientation, tremors, dizziness, motor impairment, drowsiness, paranoia and hallucinations (3).
Psychoactive drugs can result in substance abuse disorders:
-->Physical dependence. This involves changes in normal bodily functions. The user will experience difficulties from withdrawal from the drug upon stopping usage.
-->Psychological dependence. In contrast, a person who has psychological dependence has an emotional need for the drug and may use the drug to relieve psychological distress and feel good (1, 5).
-->Tolerance. This occurs when a person requires more and more drug to achieve effects previously experienced at lower doses. It is linked to physiological dependence. Tolerance can cause the user to increase the amount of drug that he/she would intake. Sometimes, it would result in the individual in taking it to a dangerous level. This may result to the point of where there is an overdose and death (1, 4, 5).
-->Difficulty in drug withdrawal. This includes a variety of negative symptoms experienced when drug use is discontinued. These symptoms usually are opposite of the effects of the drug. For example, withdrawal from sedative drugs often result in unpleasant arousal and agitation. Moreover, many individuals who are diagnosed with substance use disorders will develop tolerance to these substances and dependence, mentioned above (1, 5).
How does it affect the brain, neurotransmitters and consciousness?
-->Psychoactive drugs affect consciousness by influencing how neurotransmitters operate at the synapses of the central nervous system. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that help with the communication between brain cells.
-->Some psychoactive drugs are called agonists. Agonists mimic the operation of a neurotransmitter. Others are called antagonists. They block the action of a neurotransmitter. There are even some antagonists that work by blocking the reuptake of neurotransmitters at the synapse.
-->In some cases, the effects of psychoactive drugs mimic other naturally occurring states of consciousness. For instance, sleeping pills are prescribed to create drowsiness, and benzodiazepines are prescribed to create a state of relaxation. Psychoactive drugs that are taken for recreational purposes hold the goal of creating states of consciousness that are pleasurable or that help us escape our “normal” consciousness (1).
-->Because the brain varies in its current level and type of activity, consciousness still remains to be transitory even when we use psychoactive drugs. For example, if we drink too much coffee or beer, the caffeine or alcohol influences the activity in our brain, and our consciousness may change (6). These substances affect the neurotransmitters gradually although you may not “notice” the change in your conscious levels (7). For example, after you drink coffee, you aren’t tired one second and energized the next. This will be explained more in depth in the section mentioning the primary classes of psychoactive drugs.
The primary classes of psychoactive drugs and how they affect us individually:
Depressants: Depressants cause the body to relax by increasing the neurotransmitter GABA, which decreases neuronal excitability. These substances are known as “downers” as they decrease mental and/or physical function. Examples of depressants include alcohol, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, cannabinoids and opioids.
-->A depressant is a chemical compound that manipulates neurotransmission levels. As a result, it reduces arousal or stimulation in some parts of the brain.
-->These drugs are widely used by people as prescription medicines and as illicit substances.
-->Effects often include ataxia, anxiolysis, pain relief, sedation or somnolence, memory impairment, euphoria, dissociation, muscle relaxation, lowered blood pressure or heart rate, respiratory depression, anticonvulsant effects, and even complete anesthesia or death. However, the calming effects of depressants may be beneficial to those suffering from anxiety, sleep disorders, or pain. In contrast, the more extreme effects are dangerous and sometimes life-threatening.
-->On the neural level, most depressants act on the brain by affecting the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is responsible for regulating neuronal excitability throughout the nervous system. Depressants slow down neurons from sending impulses. They do this by binding to receptor molecules. Their ability to increase GABA, which thus inhibits brain activity, results in them being able to produce a drowsy or calming effect.
-->Stimulants induce temporary improvements in mental and sometimes physical functions. These substances are commonly used as prescription or recreational drugs. They are sometimes known as “uppers” as they increase mental and/or physical function. Examples of some stimulants include amphetamines, MDMA, NDRIs, cocaine, caffeine, and nicotine.
-->Stimulants increase the activity of the central nervous system which is the brain and spinal cord as well as the sympathetic nervous system which controls the fight-or-flight response. Common effects that one gets after intaking stimulants include enhanced alertness, awareness, wakefulness, endurance, productivity, motivation.
-->In the brain, some stimulants facilitate the activity of certain neurotransmitters, specifically norepinephrine and/or dopamine. Some block the action of certain receptors. This is a process known as receptor antagonism. Others cause action in other receptors in a process known as receptor agonism.
-->Over time, stimulants can disrupt the functioning of the brain’s dopamine system. This results in a decrease of the users’ ability to feel any “pleasure” at all from the intake of a stimulant substance.
-->Hallucinogens are drugs that alter sensory input to the brain. As a result, they create an altered sense of reality. They also affect emotions and thought patterns (7, 8). Examples include LSD and magic mushrooms (8).
-->Hallucinogens can connect the conscious mind to the unconscious. It delivers thoughts and feelings that would otherwise remain out of our conscious awareness.
-->Hallucinogens affect the levels of serotonin or glutamate in the brain and are divided into psychedelics, dissociatives, and deliriants (7).
-->Psychedelics alter perception and mood and affect numerous cognitive processes. They are generally considered physiologically safe and do not lead to dependence or addiction (9). Most psychedelics work by interacting with serotonin receptors in the brain. Effects include increased breathing and heart rate, dilated pupils, dehydration, increased color perception, a state of empathetic well-being (feeling as though one is at peace with everyone and everything), and visual distortion: things may appear to move, shapes may appear on textures and exhibit a kaleidoscope-like effect, or lighting may dramatically change for no apparent reason.
-->Most dissociative drugs create a dream-like experience. Examples of these substances are NMDA antagonists. These substances block this neurotransmitter called glutamate from entering its receptors and regulating brain function.
-->Deliriants affect visual perceptions. They produce are hard or impossible to distinguish from reality type of visuals. They work by slowing down acetylcholine which a neurotransmitter responsible for cognition and stimulation. When your acetylcholine levels increase, in contrast, you would have enhanced alertness and focus. This occurs when you are drinking coffee (7).
Websites I used:
Thank you for reading! This will be my last research round before the metamorphosis. Please leave any suggestions for my next post about it!