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Drug & Alcohol Glossary



AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome): A condition characterized by a defect in the body’s natural immunity to diseases. Individuals who suffer from it are at risk for severe illnesses that are usually not a threat to anyone whose immune system is working properly. [8]

Addiction: A chronic, relapsing disease characterized by compulsive drug-seeking and abuse and by long-lasting chemical changes in the brain. [1]

Adrenal glands: Glands, located above each, kidney that secrete hormones, e.g., adrenaline. [3]

Amphetamine: Stimulant drugs whose effects are very similar to cocaine. [5]

Amyl nitrite: A yellowish oily volatile liquid used in certain diagnostic procedures and prescribed to some patients for heart pain. Illegally diverted ampules of amyl nitrite are called “poppers” or “snappers” on the street. [9]

Anabolic effects: Drug-induced growth or thickening of the body’s nonreproductive tract tissues-including skeletal muscle, bones, the larynx, and vocal cords-and decrease in body fat. [2]

Analgesics: A group of medications that reduce pain. [2]

Anesthetic: An agent that causes insensitivity to pain and is used for surgeries and other medical procedures. [6]

Androgenic effects: A drug’s effects upon the growth of the male reproductive tract and the development of male secondary sexual characteristics. [2]

Aplastic anemia: A disorder that occurs when the bone marrow produces too few of all three types of blood cells: red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. [9]

Axon terminal: The structure at the end of an axon that produces and releases chemicals (neurotransmitters) to transmit the neuron’s message across the synapse. [5]

Axon: The fiber-like extension of a neuron by which the cell carries information to target cells. [5]


Benzene: A volatile liquid solvent found in gasoline. [9]

Bind: The attaching of a neurotransmitter or other chemical to a receptor. The neurotransmitter is said to “bind” to the receptor. [5]

Brainstem: The major route by which the forebrain sends information to, and receives information from, the spinal cord and peripheral nerves. [5]

Butane: A substance found in lighter fluid. [9]

Butyl nitrite: An illegal substance that is often packaged and sold in small bottles; also referred to as “poppers.” [9]


Cannabinoid receptor: The receptor in the brain that recognizes anandamide and THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. [5]

Cannabinoids: Chemicals that help control mental and physical processes when produced naturally by the body and that produce intoxication and other effects when absorbed from marijuana. [1]

Cannabis: The botanical name for the plant from which marijuana comes. [5]

Carcinogen: Any substance that causes cancer. [1]

Cardiovascular system: The heart and blood vessels. [2]

Cell body (or soma): The central structure of a neuron, which contains the cell nucleus. The cell body contains the molecular machinery that regulates the activity of the neuron. [5]

Central nervous system: The brain and spinal cord. [5]

Cerebellum: A portion of the brain that helps regulate posture, balance, and coordination. [5]

Cerebral cortex: Region of the brain responsible for cognitive functions including reasoning, mood, and perception of stimuli. [4]

Cerebral hemispheres: The two specialized halves of the brain. The left hemisphere is specialized for speech, writing, language, and calculation; the right hemisphere is specialized for spatial abilities, face recognition in vision, and some aspects of music perception and production. [5]

Cerebrum: The upper part of the brain consisting of the left and right hemispheres. [5]

Chloroform: A colorless volatile liquid used as a medical anesthetic gas. [9]

Chronic: Refers to a disease or condition that persists over a long period of time. [5]

Coca: The plant, Erythroxylon, from which cocaine is derived. Also refers to the leaves of this plant. [6]

Cocaethylene: A substance created in the body when cocaine and alcohol are used together; chemically similar to cocaine. [6]

Cocaine: A highly addictive stimulant drug derived from the coca plant that produces profound feelings of pleasure. [5]

Crack: “Slang” term for a smokeable form of cocaine. [6]

Craving: A powerful, often uncontrollable desire for drugs. [3]

Cyclohexyl nitrite: A chemical found in substances marketed as room deodorizers. [9]


Dendrite: The specialized branches that extend from a neuron’s cell body and function to receive messages from other neurons. [5]

Depressants: Drugs that relieve anxiety and produce sleep. Depressants include barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and alcohol. [3]

Dopamine: A brain chemical, classified as a neurotransmitter, found in regions of the brain that regulate movement, emotion, motivation, and pleasure. [1]

Drug: A chemical compound or substance that can alter the structure and function of the body. Psychoactive drugs affect the function of the brain, and some of these may be illegal to use and possess. [5]

Drug abuse: The use of illegal drugs or the inappropriate use of legal drugs. The repeated use of drugs to produce pleasure, to alleviate stress, or to alter or avoid reality (or all three). [5]


Ecstasy (MDMA): A chemically modified amphetamine that has hallucinogenic as well as stimulant properties. [5]

Emphysema: A lung disease in which tissue deterioration results in increased air retention and reduced exchange of gases. The result is difficult breathing and shortness of breath. It is often caused by smoking. [3]

Endogenous: Something produced by the brain or body. [5]

Ether: A volatile liquid with a characteristic odor. Used as a medical anesthetic gas. [9]

Euphoria: A feeling of well-being or elation. [9]


Fluorinated hydrocarbons: Gases or liquids commonly found in refrigerants, fire extinguishers, solvents, and anesthetics. Freon is one class of fluorinated hydrocarbons. [9]

Forebrain: The largest division of the brain, which includes the cerebral cortex and basal ganglia. It is credited with the highest intellectual functions. [5]

Frontal lobe: One of the four divisions of each cerebral hemisphere. The frontal lobe is important for controlling movement and associating the functions of other cortical areas. [5]


Hallucinations: Perceptions of something (such as a visual image or a sound) that does not really exist. Hallucinations usually arise from a disorder of the nervous system or in response to drugs (such as LSD). [9]

Hallucinogens: A diverse group of drugs that alter perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. Hallucinogenic drugs include LSD, mescaline, MDMA (ecstasy), PCP, and psilocybin (magic mushrooms). [5]

Halothane: Medical anesthetic gas. [9]

Hepatitis: Inflammation of the liver. [9]

Heroin: The potent, widely abused opiate that produces addiction. It consists of two morphine molecules linked together chemically. [5]

Hexane: A hydrocarbon volatile liquid found in glue or gasoline. [9]

Hippocampus: An area of the brain crucial for learning and memory. [1]

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus): The virus that causes AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). [8]

Hormone: A chemical substance formed in glands in the body and carried in the blood to organs and tissues, where it influences function, structure, and behavior. [2]

Hypothalamus: The part of the brain that controls many bodily functions, including feeding, drinking, and the release of many hormones. [5]


Ingestion: The act of taking in food or other material into the body through the mouth. [5]

Inhalant: Any drug administered by breathing in its vapors. Inhalants commonly are organic solvents, such as glue and paint thinner, or anesthetic gases, such as ether and nitrous oxide. [5]

Inhalation: The act of administering a drug or combination of drugs by nasal or oral respiration. Also, the act of drawing air or other substances into the lungs. Nicotine in tobacco smoke enters the body by inhalation. [5]

Injection: A method of administering a substance such as a drug into the skin, subcutaneous tissue, muscle, blood vessels, or body cavities, usually by means of a needle. [5]


Limbic system: A set of brain structures that generates our feelings, emotions, and motivations. It is also important in learning and memory. [5]

LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide): An hallucinogenic drug that acts on the serotonin receptor. [5]


Marijuana: A drug, usually smoked but can be eaten, that is made from the leaves of the cannabis plant. The main psychoactive ingredient is THC. [5]

Medication: A drug that is used to treat an illness or disease according to established medical guidelines. [5]

Metabolism: The processes by which the body breaks things down or alters them so they can be eliminated. [5]

Methamphetamine: A commonly abused, potent stimulant drug that is part of a larger family of amphetamines. [5]

Methylphenidate (Ritalin®): Methylphenidate is a central nervous system stimulant. It has effects similar to, but more potent than, caffeine and less potent than amphetamines. It has a notably calming and “focusing” effect on those with ADHD, particularly children. [7]

Musculoskeletal system: The muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments. [2]

Myelin: Fatty material that surrounds and insulates axons of most neurons. [9]


Neuron (nerve cell): A unique type of cell found in the brain and body that is specialized to process and transmit information. [5]

Neurotransmission: The process that occurs when a neuron releases neurotransmitters to communicate with another neuron across the synapse. [5]

Neurotransmitter: A chemical produced by neurons to carry messages to other neurons. [5]

Nicotine: The addictive drug in tobacco. Nicotine activates a specific type of acetylcholine receptor. [5]

Nitrites: A special class of inhalants that act primarily to dilate blood vessels and relax the muscles. Whereas other inhalants are used to alter mood, nitrites are used primarily as sexual enhancers. (See also amyl nitrite and butyl nitrite). [9]

Nitrous oxide: Medical anesthetic gas, especially used in dentistry. Also called “laughing gas.” Found in whipped cream dispensers and gas cylinders. [9]

Noradrenaline: A chemical neurotransmitter that is made in the brain and can affect the heart.[ [9]

Nucleus: A cluster or group of nerve cells that is dedicated to performing its own special function(s). Nuclei are found in all parts of the brain but are called cortical fields in the cerebral cortex. [5]

Nucleus accumbens: A part of the brain reward system, located in the limbic system, that processes information related to motivation and reward. Virtually all drugs of abuse act on the nucleus accumbens to reinforce drug taking. [5]


Occipital lobe: The lobe of the cerebral cortex at the back of the head that includes the visual cortex. [5]


Parietal lobe: One of the four subdivisions of the cerebral cortex; it is involved in sensory processes, attention, and language. [5]

Physical dependence: An adaptive physiological state that occurs with regular drug use and results in a withdrawal syndrome when drug use is stopped; usually occurs with tolerance. [3]

Polyneuropathy: Permanent change or malfunction of nerves. Sudden sniffing death – A type of death that can occur when inhaled fumes fill up the cells in the lungs with poisonous chemicals, leaving no room for the oxygen needed to breathe. This lack of oxygen can lead to suffocation, respiratory failure, and death. [9]

Polyneuropathy: A drug that distorts perception, thought, and feeling. This term is typically used to refer to drugs with actions like those of LSD. [5]

Psychoactive: Having a specific effect on the mind. [1]

Psychoactive drug: A drug that changes the way the brain works. [5]


Receptor: A large molecule that recognizes specific chemicals (normally neurotransmitters, hormones, and similar endogenous substances) and transmits the message carried by the chemical into the cell on which the receptor resides. [5]

Relapse: In drug abuse, relapse is the resumption of drug use after trying to stop taking drugs. Relapse is a common occurrence in many chronic disorders, including addiction, that require behavioral adjustments to treat effectively. [5]

Reuptake: The process by which neurotransmitters are removed from the synapse by being “pumped” through transporters back into the axon terminals that first released them. [5]

Reuptake pump (transporter): The large molecule that actually transports neurotransmitter molecules back into the axon terminals that released them. [5]

Reward: The process that reinforces behavior. It is mediated at least in part by the release of dopamine into the nucleus accumbens. Human subjects report that reward is associated with feelings of pleasure. [5]

Reward system (or brain reward system): A brain circuit that, when activated, reinforces behaviors. The circuit includes the dopamine-containing neurons of the ventral tegmental area, the nucleus accumbens, and part of the prefrontal cortex. The activation of this circuit causes feelings of pleasure. [5]

Route of administration: The way a drug is put into the body. Drugs can enter the body by eating, drinking, inhaling, injecting, snorting, smoking, or absorbing a drug through mucous membranes. [5]

Rush: A surge of pleasure that rapidly follows administration of some drugs. [3]


Serotonin: A neurotransmitter that regulates many functions, including mood, appetite, and sensory perception. [5]

Sex hormones: Hormones that are found in higher quantities in one sex than in the other. Male sex hormones are the androgens, which include testosterone; and the female sex hormones are the estrogens and progesterone. [2]

Stimulants: A class of drugs that elevates mood, increases feelings of well-being, and increases energy and alertness. These drugs produce euphoria and are powerfully rewarding. Stimulants include cocaine, Methamphetamine, and methylphenidate (Ritalin). [5]

Synapse: The site where presynaptic and postsynaptic neurons communicate with each other. [5]

Synaptic space (or synaptic cleft): The intercellular space between the presynaptic and postsynaptic neurons. [5]


Temporal lobe: The lobe of the cerebral cortex at the side of the head that hears and interprets music and language. [5]

Tetrahydrocannabinol: See THC.

Thalamus: Located deep within the brain, the thalamus is the key relay station for sensory information flowing into the brain, filtering out important messages from the mass of signals entering the brain. [5]

THC: Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol; the main active ingredient in marijuana, which acts on the brain to produce its effects. [1]

Tobacco: A plant widely cultivated for its leaves, which are used primarily for smoking; the tabacum species is the major source of tobacco products. [3]

Tolerance: A condition in which higher doses of a drug are required to produce the same effect as during initial use; often leads to physical dependence. [3]

Toluene: A light colorless liquid solvent found in many commonly abused inhalants, including airplane glue, paint sprays, and paint and nail polish removers. [9]

Transporter: A light colorless liquid solvent found in many commonly abused inhalants, including airplane glue, paint sprays, and paint and nail polish removers.[ [5]

Trichloroethylene: A liquid used as a solvent and in medicine as an anesthetic and analgesic. Found in cleaning fluid and correction fluid. [9]


Ventral tegmental area (VTA): The group of dopamine-containing neurons that make up a key part of the brain reward system. These neurons extend axons to the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex. [5]

Vertigo: The sensation of dizziness. [6]

Vesicle: A membranous sac within an axon terminal that stores and releases neurotransmitter. [5]


Withdrawal: Symptoms that occur after chronic use of a drug is reduced or stopped. [2]


  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIDA Research Report-Marijuana Abuse, Glossary
    NIH Pub. No. 02-3859. Bethesda, MD: NIDA, NIH, DHHS. October 2002.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIDA Research Report-Steroid Abuse and Addiction, Glossary
    NIH Pub. No. 00-3721. Bethesda, MD: NIDA, NIH, DHHS. Printed 1991. Reprinted 1994, 1996. Revised April 2000.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIDA Research Report-Nicotine Addiction, Glossary
    NIH Pub. No. 01-4342. Bethesda, MD: NIDA, NIH, DHHS. Printed July, 1998. Reprinted August 2001.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIDA Research Report-Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs, Glossary
    NIH Pub. No. 01-4209. Bethesda, MD: NIDA, NIH, DHHS. Printed March 2001.
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. The Brain: Understanding Neurobiology Through the Study of Addiction, Glossary
    NIH Pub. No. 00-4871. Bethesda, MD: NIDA, NIH, DHHS. Printed 2000.
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIDA Research Report- Cocaine Abuse and Addiction, Glossary
    NIH Pub. No. 99-4342, Bethesda, MD: NIDA, NIH, DHHS. Printed May 1999. Revised November 2004
  7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIDA InfoFacts- Methylphenidate (Ritalin)
  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIDA InfoFacts: Drug Abuse and AIDS
  9. National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIDA Research Report- Inhalants Abuse
    NIH Pub. No. 00-3818, Bethesda, MD: NIDA, NIH, DHHS. Printed 1994, Reprinted 1996, 1999. Revised July, 2000, Revised 2005
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