TODAY   |  April 11, 2013

What your brain looks like on prescription meds

Most of us think prescription drugs are safer than illicit drugs, but that’s only true when they are taken exactly as prescribed, and for the right purpose. NBC’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman explains the effect prescription meds like sleeping pills and painkillers have on the brain.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> of us remember this 1980s wake-up call from the partnership for a drug-free america.

>> this is drugs. this is your brain on drugs. any questions?

>> of course, they were talking about illegal drugs . but what about the effects of prescription pills? dr. nancy snyderman is nbc's chief medical editor. good morning.

>> good morning.

>> we're going to do a little science here with what happens with the brain. let's talk about sleeping pills . a lot of us take them from time to time to help us go to sleep.

>> and a lot of people take them every single day. you should be aware of what it's doing to your brain. when your brain is awake all the time and the awake brain is firing on all cylinders and it is awake and firing because it's conscious of what's going on in your environment and if you look at it, all the sparkles are what you're seeing, your alertness, what's in the environment. but this area, the red area now you have a sleeping brain. that red area is an area that stays away no matter what because it controls your heart and your lungs and basically your normal breathing. but if you look at them side by side , the problem is if you don't know how long that sleeping pill 's going to last, that tingly alert brain when you wake up in the morning and expect it may, in fact, may be that asleep brain. and that's when you get into trouble because they affect all parts of the body with dizziness, instability, you get in the car, can't drive straight and you have an accident. so real reminder that the sleeping pills turn off your brain but can affect your entire body.

>> let's talk about prescription painkillers.

>> sure.

>> we now know takes the lives of more americans than heroin and cocaine combined.

>> that's right.

>> when you take a painkiller.

>> back pain, you want it for your back and then the medication goes right to these two reward centers. and that's all the codeines morphines, that are addicting. they go to the reward centers, but those are the same reward centers that light up when you're on cocaine, cigarettes, sex, gambling, all those reward centers we talk about. the problem is, they get fatigued. so after a while if it's working that medication comes down and you see the back gets very quiet and the pain goes away. that's if you use it as prescribed and for the right amount of time. but if you fatigue your brain, what's going to happen is you're going to have medication come down and you know what, it's going to take more and more and more and more to take care of that spot and that's when you become an addict.

>> and you develop a tolerance over time , as well, for those drugs. well, great information. a lot more we'll talk about next time. thank you.