Chicago researchers lay out more detailed picture of what drugs do to our brains

Since the late 1980s, we thought we had a good idea of what drugs do to our brains.

Now, researchers in Chicago have an even more detailed picture.

Even if you weren’t born when this Public Service Announcement was released in 1987, you've probably seen it: "This is your brain. This your brain on drugs."

Now, researchers from Argonne National Lab and the University of Chicago have much more than a metaphor to show what happens to your brain when you take drugs.

Thanks to super computers and some mice, they have a detailed picture generated on a microscopic level.

"One exposure to one of these drugs of abuse fundamentally changes physically how your brain operates," said assistance professor Bobby Kasthufi of the Neurobiology Department at the University of Chicago.

Neuro-scientist Bobby Kasthuri and his team spent nearly the last 10 years researching this question. To answer it, they had to find out which connections in the brain change when you take drugs.

"It’s worse than a needle in a haystack problem. It’s more of a haystack in a haystack problem … because all the connections kind of look the same," Kasthufi said.

Not to mention, Kasthuri says a human brain has probably 100 billion cells or neurons and each one makes about 10,000 connections on average.

"I was thinking it would take more exposures of the animal to find these changes," Kasthufi said.


After exposing mice to cocaine just one or two times, Kasthuri says his team saw "dramatic anatomical" changes in the dopamine neurons in some of the mice brains.

These neurons play a part in everything from voluntary movement to behavior.

"Parts of them were branching, which means they were allegedly making new connections. Parts of them were bulbs … which means they were allegedly removing existing connections," Kasthufi said. "The basic idea is that process of removing and adding actually creates a circuit in your brain that is responsive, more responsive to the effects of that drug of abuse."

Given his own family's history with addiction and mental illness, this research was not only scientific but also personal for Kasthuri. That’s why he hopes his team's findings will lead the way to finding new ways to treat drug addiction.

"For a long time, drugs of abuse and addiction were associated with kind of a weak will. A weak character," Kasthufi said. "This kind of idea that there are physical changes in our brain. The actual neurons are changing. I’m hoping will give us a more kind of rational, empathetic view … for how society deals with addiction and drugs of abuse."

Kasthuri also adds once you change how a brain physically operates, it’s very hard to get back to that original state.