How Using Gateway Drugs Leads to Addiction


Many people think addictions are caused by lack of willpower or that they are a personal choice. The truth is that addiction is a disease caused by many factors. Early use of substances, such as so-called gateway drugs, alters brain chemistry and can eventually lead to addiction.

What are gateway drugs?

Gateway drugs are substances that are easily available, don’t cost a lot, and are perceived as low risk. Many people use them as their first experiment with drugs. Most are legal and easily accessible to younger people. They include alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and prescription medications.

What happens to the brain when drugs are taken?

When a person takes drugs, the brain is overwhelmed by a large amount of dopamine, which creates an intense feeling of pleasure or euphoria. Over time, this surge in dopamine causes the brain to seek out more experiences to get that same feeling. These changes in brain functioning lead to the person physically needing to repeat the behavior to get that pleasure back.

Continued use of drugs leads to chemical changes in the brain that affect its ability to function in several areas, including learning, judgment, decision-making, handling stress, memory, and controlling behavior.

How this leads to addiction

With repeated use, the brain adapts to these dopamine rushes and lowers its ability to respond, producing less and less of a high with the same amount of drug use. Developing a tolerance leads to the use of more drugs to get the same feeling.

As more drugs are used, the biological and psychological need for that sense of euphoria intensifies and can lead to addiction.

Factors contributing to addiction

There are many factors that contribute to addiction, and not everyone who has these factors will become addicted. However, the more factors a person has, the more likely they are to become addicted.

Biology/genetics – A family history of addiction or mental disorders or having certain brain characteristics can lead to addiction.

Psychological – Problems with stress, personality traits like high impulsivity or sensation seeking, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, personality and other psychiatric disorders can increase the likelihood of addiction.

Environment – Factors such as peer pressure, abuse or trauma, exposure to drugs, and parental guidance can influence whether a person becomes addicted.

Development – The earlier a person starts using drugs, the more likely they will become addicted, as drugs affect areas of the brain that are still developing and interfere with good decision-making.


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