Hormones and Drugs

Like neurotransmitters, hormones are endogenous substances (chemicals that exist in the body) that influence the body and bring about changes in organs. Unlike neurotransmitters, hormones are secreted by the endocrine glands into the bloodstream so that the hormones can spread throughout the body and make a long-distance change. You can think of a released hormone as dispersed pinecone seeds in a river after they fall from a tree. Pinecone seeds can flow with the river, go just about anywhere, and get picked up by anything that is receptive to them. Like neurotransmitters, hormones must bind to a receptor for a change to occur. However, hormones are different from neurotransmitters because the changes that hormones make are often more long-term.

Psychoactive drugs are exogenous substances that are introduced into a person’s body; they are called psychoactive because they can alter the mind. Some of these substances, such as amphetamines, alter behavior by releasing neurotransmitters like dopamine when they attach to specific receptors in the brain. Other drugs such as heroin (a powerful opiate drug that can alter one’s sense of mood and perception of pain) actually bind to the body’s opiate receptors, mimicking the endogenous chemicals. Exogenous opiates and other drugs that have similar mechanisms of action not only bind but also can activate the receptors as if they were the neurotransmitter. When a substance can mimic the brain’s neurotransmitter, it is called an agonist. Taking an agonist is like using a copy of the key that opens the door to your house. It is not the brain’s natural chemical, but it acts exactly the same.

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