Effects of Heroin Use on the Brain

heroin and the brainHeroin is a strong opiate drug derived from morphine. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it is highly addictive and can cause serious, damaging effects. The drug can be injected, inhaled in powder form, or smoked. The route of entry can determine how quickly the user feels the effects, but the effects are generally the same. To understand how it works and the effects it has on the brain, it’s important to know how the normal brain operates.

As explained by the experts at the NIDA, the human brain operates through the communication of impulses between various aspects of the brain cells. The nerve cells of the brain are called neurons. The nerve cells have transporters, which release brain chemicals, and receptors, which receive messages from other neurons. The chemicals that are released into the open space between each neuron are called neurotransmitters. The communications between each neuron control every aspect of how our bodies work, how we think and what we feel.

The brain contains a variety of receptors for a plethora of neurotransmitters. One of these receptors is the “opiate receptor.”  When these receptors were discovered, the question of why the human brain would have receptors for foreign materials, such as opium, became important. According to Canada’s McGill University, the answer was simple. The human body produces a brain chemical not unlike opium, the original manifestation of morphine and heroin.

The human brain creates certain chemicals called endorphins, according to the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University. These neurotransmitters attach the opiate receptors in the brain and we feel good. They are released in response to things that are supposed to bring us joy or happiness: a favorite song, a favorite food, or the presence of someone we love. They are also released by exercise, as endorphins, like morphine, can control levels of pain one might experience from an intense workout.

Effects of Heroin on the Brain

Heroin, because it is an opiate drug, mimics the same brain chemical naturally designed to control pain and enhance pleasure. Once heroin has passed through the blood-brain barrier, it morphs into morphine, which is attracted to and attaches to the opiate receptors. The initial reaction to a dose of heroin is euphoria. The method by which the drug is introduced determines the speed with which the effect takes place, but in a matter of moments, the drug user will feel a rush, followed by a feeling of warm comfort and euphoria. This happens because morphine is not a natural endorphin. The brain recognizes it enough that it can bind to the receptor, but the message sent through the body is vastly different and more intense than a reaction to a natural endorphin.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, unnatural chemicals, such as heroin and other drugs, can cause the body to release up to 10 times the amount of another brain chemical, dopamine. Dopamine is the brain chemical responsible for pleasure and reward, according to an article published by Psychology Today.  Specifically, dopamine is a teacher – it teaches us that when good things happen, we should feel good.

As the brain is flooded with a drug such as heroin, the brain releases an inhibitory agent, called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA. GABA is the signal to the brain that inhibits the creation of dopamine, so that our reactions and feelings remain at a normal level. If GABA is blocked, the brain will not know when to stop making dopamine. GABA, even though it is a form of receptor, has opiate receptors itself, according to the University of Delaware. As the opiate drugs attach to GABA, it is unable to inhibit the production of dopamine, which may be responsible for the euphoric feelings that drug abusers seek.The effects of heroin do not stop at how “good” a person feels, however. When an individual has become addicted to a drug as potent and powerful as heroin, the drugs can also change how they think. Some of the signs of addiction include:

  • Continuing to use a drug even though you know it is bad for you and it is causing problems with relationships with family members, employers or employees, clients and friends
  • Placing more importance on using drugs than meeting responsibilities for work and family care.
  • Encountering problems of a legal nature from arrests stemming from intoxicated or impaired driving or possession of illegal substances
  • Presence of withdrawal symptoms when not using heroin

Stopping the Effects of Heroin Use on the Brain

Addiction is a chronic brain disease, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In order to stop the effects of heroin use on the brain, the drug abuser or addict must make the conscious choice to stop using. Our treatment programs here at Axis can provide you or your loved one with the tools needed to overcome addiction and dependence on drugs like heroin.