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Understanding addiction

Addiction impacts the brain in many ways. One of the main neurotransmitters or brain chemicals associated with drug use and other addictive behaviours is dopamine. Our brains release dopamine whenever we anticipate doing something that feels good and/or participate in pleasurable activities.


Eating something delicious, walking the dog, having a kiss and cuddle, even checking our phone all activate the dopamine system. Scientists call this ‘reward’ and we are highly motivated to repeat behaviours which provide us with rewards.


Unfortunately for us, our natural highs like eating and cuddling can’t compete with the highs we experience from addictive behaviours such as drug use and gambling. When our brains release greater amounts of dopamine, we get cravings for these rewards, even during a binge, which can then lead to compulsive, repetitive behaviour.

Different drugs act on the brain in different ways producing different effects. Hover mouse over each image for more information.


Hallucinogens include LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and ketamine. These drugs produce visual distortions, empathetic well-being and altered sensory perceptions. For some, this is a meaningful and life-changing experience, for others, it may be unpleasant and frightening.



Depressants include alcohol, cannabis, benzodiazapines (e.g. valium), heroin and GHB. Depressant drugs relax and sedate, slow heart rate and breathing, and reduce inhibitions. Increased doses can cause impaired coordination, irregular and shallow breathing, loss of memory and consciousness, even death.



Stimulants include amphetamines (e.g. Ritalin, Adderall, ice), MDMA, cocaine, nicotine and caffeine. Stimulants increase alertness,attention and endurance, can improve mood and create feelings of euphoria and wellbeing. Increased or long-term use of stimulants can cause insomnia, anxiety, mood swings, aggression and paranoia.


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