Stimulants’ Effect on Neuroplasticity

Long-Term Effects from Prolonged Use

Learn about the different types of neuroplasticity and how stimulant drugs affect each one.

Stimulants Effect on Neuroplasticity
Stimulants Effect on Neuroplasticity

Stimulants’ Effect on Neuroplasticity

Long-Term Effects from Prolonged Use

Learn about the different types of neuroplasticity and how stimulant drugs affect each one.

The information presented on this page is a general overview and is offered here as a comprehensive resource. At Ampelis Recovery, our programs are customized and tailored to the individual’s needs. Specific details below that cover treatment protocols may not reflect the protocols used for our clients.

If you would like to learn more about Ampelis Recovery and our customized programs for professional men, please do not hesitate to reach out.


What is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to physically change based on new environments, information, or experience. These changes occur due to the electrical impulses in the brain that send and relay information. Neuroplasticity affects:

  • Adapting
  • Learning
  • Processing information
  • Memory
  • Behavior

Neuroplasticity decreases as we age and is based on individual health factors such as diet, exercise, and substance use. The connection between stimulants and neuroplasticity is actively studied.

Learn More About Healing the Brain

Types of Neuroplasticity

Structural Neuroplasticity

Structural neuroplasticity occurs when physical changes happen in the brain. These changes include new neural connections, growth of new neurons, and erasing old or unneeded connections. Structural changes often occur due to social situations, emotions, actions, and thought.1 Because of these constants, the adaptive brain is ever-changing.

In terms of substance use disorder or SUD, these changes can be harmful as substance abuse tends to morph the brain’s shape while also limiting future neuroplasticity.2

Synaptic Neuroplasticity

Synaptic neuroplasticity refers to biochemical and neurobiological changes to the brain. These changes occur when new information is processed. According to Hebb’s Law, so named after Dr. Donald Hebb, synapses fire at an exponential rate. One synapse sets off surrounding synapses, which in turn set off nearby synapses.

Over time these changes lead to the aforementioned structural changes due to the building of new neural pathways.3 Hebb’s law also favors a holistic view of an individual and their tendency for addiction. Hebb suggests that co-dependent social, physical, and mental systems comprise human health.

Biomedical Neuroplasticity

Biomedical treatments result from the holistic approach put forth by Hebb and other medical practitioners both before and after him. However, Hebb began to consider a biomedical approach in 1937.4 Holistic approaches were unheard of in Western medicine at the time. Before a holistic approach, doctors would aim to treat the side effects but not the root cause of the ailment.

In the case of addiction, doctors used treatments to help with things like withdrawal or organ failure. They did not emphasize the mental reasons for addiction such as depression or, further yet, the social causes of addiction such as poverty. Biomedical treatments solve that problem by curing patients of the side effects and the cause.

Drug-Induced Neuroplasticity

Drug-induced neuroplasticity occurs when a substance reshapes the brain.2 The risk of drug-induced neuroplasticity increases with the frequency of consumption and amount. Changes in structural neuroplasticity take time. Addiction causes drug-induced neuroplasticity leading to high prioritization for the addictive substance.2

These changes cause healthy priorities such as work or interpersonal relationships to fall in status. Drug-induced neuroplasticity also makes normal or healthy rewards less rewarding. The ramifications for structural neuroplasticity create an emotional vacuum. The patient cannot moderate their drug use and is prone to depression when not inebriated. Biomedical neuroplasticity treatments aim to return the brain to a healthy shape and build new neurological connections.

What are the Most Common Stimulants?

These are the most common stimulants and their effect on the brain and neuroplasticity.


Cocaine, a controlled substance, is an addictive stimulant that causes hyperactivity, limits synaptic development, and significantly alters mood.5 A primary danger of cocaine is the ease of accessibility and highly addictive properties. Over a million people admitted to cocaine use in 2016.6

Cocaine can cause bursts of extreme happiness due to its effect on dopamine receptors. These receptors produce dopamine, the happy chemical. However, repeated cocaine use causes an overproduction of dopamine, leading to burnout. Over time the receptors make less dopamine, causing longer, more severe bouts with depression, leading to heavier cocaine use.5


Amphetamines, as a drug class, have several medicinal functions. However, methamphetamine, commonly called meth, shares many of the same side effects as cocaine. Methamphetamine use contributes to rapidly degrading dental health, also referred to as meth mouth. These irreversible physical changes can further serve to damage the self-worth of a person with substance use disorder. This can create a circular pattern of behavior. Further meth use reinforces this pattern of behavior. Amphetamines prevent numerous neural pathways from forming.2 This causes many long-lasting, heavy drug use symptoms, such as low processing ability and diminished memory.7


Adderall, a prescription amphetamine drug to treat attention deficit disorders, is abused most frequently by academic students attempting to gain an edge in their field. Studies show that Adderall contributes to a change in mood and focus. Many of its adverse side effects have more to do with automatic functions such as heart rate or breathing and less to do with neuroplasticity. However, Adderall can be addictive. In the case of addiction, many of its symptoms are similar to other substances. These symptoms include:8

  • Withdrawal
  • Cravings
  • High-prioritization

Stimulants’ affect Structural Neuroplasticity

Stimulants and neuroplasticity share a complex relationship. Here are a few changes that affect structural neuroplasticity.

Dendritic Spines

Dendritic spines, the parts of neurons that hold and relay information, are vital to sending signals throughout the brain. Stimulants change the shape, density, and amount of dendritic spines. The result of these changes is a shift in:9

  • Thinking
  • Information retention
  • Behavior

Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor

Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor or BDNF is a protein in charge of instructing the body to build new cells, maintain existing cells, and regulate overall brain chemistry.10 In terms of drug addiction, BDNF causes dendritic spines to grow and build connections. However, the connections built during drug use tend to reinforce drug use further. Large dendritic spines, which hold more information and tend to last longer than small dendritic spines, contribute to drug use’s long-lasting mental effects. Essentially, this causes the habit of drug addiction to be difficult to unlearn.5

Stimulants Effect on Biomedical Neuroplasticity

One of the clearest connections between stimulants and neuroplasticity is dopamine receptors and the ventral tegmental area. Here’s why.

Dopamine Receptors

Biomedical neuroplasticity deals with the interaction between drugs and neuroplasticity. Biomedical neuroplasticity reveals that repeated drug use damages dopamine receptors’ relationship with healthy rewards. The brain releases dopamine to reinforce positive behavior such as validation, sex drive, and accomplishments. However, dopamine released due to substance use causes the brain to perceive substance abuse as a positive. This relationship is the driving force of addiction from a biomedical standpoint.11

Ventral Tegmental Area

The ventral tegmental area (VTA) is in charge of sending out dopamine and connecting the central nervous system with other parts of the brain. Of the many functions the VTA serves, not the least of which is essentially cataloging and controlling rewarding behavior. Drug addiction interferes with this process, causing overactivity of the VTA, which can cause long-lasting effects.5

Stimulants and Neuroinflammation

Inflammation is a biological mechanism designed to destroy damaged tissues and limit the risk of infection. This mechanism activates during drug use due to the damage substances have on neuropathways. Stimulants, in particular, cause inflammation within the neocortex. The neocortex allows access to higher thought such as:12

  • Perception
  • Logic
  • Communication

Long-term stimulant abuse can erode the neocortex and diminish higher thought.

Altered Reward Circuits

A key sign of severe drug addiction is a heavy prioritization of a substance. Drug use rewires reward circuits to encourage more drug use. As mentioned, drug use triggers reward circuits to release dopamine and perceive drug use positively, resulting in drug cravings. It can take years to rewire reward circuits due to the intense change in structural neuroplasticity.5

Neuroplasticity of Dependence

Dependence is a sign of addiction. Dependence infers severe withdrawal symptoms, life-long recovery, and significant brain changes. Dependence occurs when a body reduces the production of a specific chemical because of external factors. In drug addiction, the body makes less dopamine. It creates diminishing dopamine returns with repeated drug use, which encourages increasing amounts to achieve euphoria.13

Neuroplasticity of Compulsion

Compulsion is a biological urge to:

  • Eat
  • Sleep
  • Hydrate
  • Copulate
  • Engage in other evolutionary survival tactics

Because of the effect stimulants have on the VTA, drug use becomes as vital as the activities mentioned above. This contributes to the extreme lengths a person with SUD will go to while experiencing addiction. The link between stimulants and neuroplasticity intensifies addictive behavior.

Treatment’s Importance

A person with substance use issues is rarely in control of their actions. Additionally, many drug users are unaware of the many long-term risks drugs possess. The average substance user rarely considers the link between stimulants and neuroplasticity. The most crucial action is to get them professional help. Seeking treatment is the first step to life-long recovery.

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