What Does Toxicity Do at the Cellular Level?

Alcohol and illicit drugs have notorious effects upon our bodies. The neurotransmitters in our brains are stimulated, an effective high or low is achieved, and our abilities to reason, mobilize or react are all skewed. This is, of course, just the beginning of the story. What actually happens at the cellular level?

Alcohol is a depressant, which means that it brings on a “low.” It is comparable to other depressant drugs. Excitatory nerves, such as Glutamine, are suppressed, and inhibitory nerves are active. For example, the inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA, is prevalent in both alcohol and inhaled anesthetics. It is the suppression of the excitatory nerves which brings on sluggishness, which is typical drunk behavior. Alcohol affects the brain centers in a specific order, beginning with the cerebral cortex, then the limbic system, followed by the cerebellum. Next, the hypothalamus and pituitary glands are affected, followed by the medulla, or brain stem. [1]

Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream, but it begins breaking down as soon as it reaches the stomach, through the enzyme dehydrogenase. Men produce more of this enzyme than women, which explains why men typically need more alcohol in order to become drunk, and women can become drunk very quickly on less alcohol. [2]

Inhibitory (or depressant) drugs act on the body similarly to alcohol. However, excitatory drugs, such as methamphetamine, release neurotransmitters which fire an action potential in the receptor of the brain cell. The process is as follows: The excitatory neurotransmitter ACh (acetylcholine) binds to the receptor, which opens sodium channels. This is similar to opening a dam in order to allow water through. The sodium (Na+) ions then reduce the membrane potential, which results in depolarization. An action potential is then created, which is the familiar excitatory effect of stimulant drugs. This is similar to a magnetic force field. You can feel the pull from some distance away, but at a certain distance from the magnet (the threshold of depolarization in the neuron), you are too close and are immediately sucked in to the magnet. [3]

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1. Freudenrich, Craig. “How Alcohol Works.” Discovery Health “Health Guides”. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 June 2011. http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/drugs-alcohol/alcohol6.htm.

2. “Alcohol – It’s effect on your body and health.” HealthCheck Systems. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 June 2011. http://www.healthchecksystems.com/alcohol.htm.

3. “Synapses.” RCN D.C. Metro. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 June 2011. http://users.rcn.com/jkimball.ma.ultranet/BiologyPages/S/Synapses.html.

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