This class of drugs targets the central nervous system and includes medications used to treat pain (e.g., Vicodin, OxyContin), ADHD (e.g., Adderall), and anxiety and sleep disorders (e.g., Xanax, Valium). Taken as intended, prescription drugs safely treat specific mental or physical symptoms.
However, when taken in unmanaged doses or by someone without a prescription, these medications may affect the brain in ways similar to illegal drugs. Ritalin, for example, increases alertness, attention, and energy in a way similar to cocaine—by boosting the amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine released in the brain.
Similarly, prescription opioid pain relievers such as OxyContin attach to the same cell receptors targeted by illegal opioids like heroin. When abused, these drugs can lead to a large increase in the amount of dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway. Repeatedly seeking to experience that pleasurable feeling can lead to addiction. Abuse of opioids can also affect areas of the brain that control breathing, causing it to slow down significantly and potentially causing death (a fatal overdose). When abused, opioids can also cause drowsiness and constipation.