Neuropsychopharmacology (2008) 33, 209–218; doi:10.1038/sj.npp.1301412; published online 4 April 2007

Drugs of Abuse and the Aging Brain

Gayathri J Dowling1, Susan R B Weiss1 and Timothy P Condon1

1National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIH, DHHS, Bethesda, MD, USA

Correspondence: Dr GJ Dowling, Office of Science Policy and Communications, National Institute on Drug Abuse, 6001 Executive Boulevard, Room 5235, MSC 9591, Bethesda, MD 20892-9591, USA. Tel: +1 301 443 6071; Fax: +1 301 480 2485; E-mail:

Received 13 July 2006; Revised 1 March 2007; Accepted 5 March 2007; Published online 4 April 2007.



Substance abuse among older adults has received little attention in the past, presumably because this population has traditionally accounted for only a small percentage of the drug abuse problem in the United States. The aging of the baby boomer generation (born 1946–1964), however, will soon swell the ranks of older adults and dramatically alter the demography of American society. Several observations suggest that this expansion will likely be accompanied by a precipitous increase in the abuse of drugs, including prescription medications and illicit substances, among older adults. While it is now evident that the brain changes continuously across life, how drugs of abuse interact with these age-related changes remains unclear. The dynamic nature of brain function, however, suggests that substance abuse during older age may augment the risks and require unique considerations for diagnosis and treatment. In addition to describing current and projected prevalence estimates of substance abuse among older adults, the present review discusses how aging affects brain systems involved in drug abuse, and explores the potential impact of drug abuse on the aging brain. Future directions for substance abuse research among older adults will also be considered.


brain, aging, neurotoxicity, neuroprotection, neurotransmitters, addiction

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