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How Does Heroin Affect the Brain?

An upset woman wondering, "How does heroin affect the brain?"

Heroin is an illicit opioid drug that’s derived from morphine, a naturally occurring substance found in opium poppy plants. If you know someone who is struggling with heroin abuse and needs heroin addiction treatment in Asheville, contact Insight Recovery Centers today at 828.826.1376 and learn how our treatment program can help.

The Effects of Heroin Abuse

Pain medications like Vicodin and OxyContin have similar effects to heroin. All opioids, whether they are prescription medications or street drugs, are highly addictive. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that around 5% of those who misuse prescription opioids eventually begin using heroin.

Heroin can be snorted and smoked, but it is most commonly used intravenously. The drug creates a euphoric effect that lasts several minutes and then begins to wear off. Some of the short-term effects of heroin include:

  • Severe itching
  • Mood swings
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling of heaviness in the extremities
  • Respiratory depression

The long-term health risks associated with heroin abuse include:

  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Blood clots
  • Stroke
  • Collapsed veins
  • Viral infections from sharing needles
  • Lung infections
  • Dependence and addiction
  • Overdose

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the number of heroin overdose deaths increased sevenfold between 1999 and 2020. A shocking 14,000 people die from heroin overdose annually in the U.S.

How Does Heroin Affect the Brain?

The human brain functions by communicating through neurons that send signals through chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters fit into specific neuron receptors the way a key fits into a lock.

Some of these neurotransmitters are naturally produced opioids. Though the effect of natural opioids does not last long, the brain produces them to help with pain control.

When heroin enters the body, it rapidly binds with the same opioid receptors that natural opioids are intended to bind with. With continued heroin use, the brain becomes less able to produce its own opioids. This affects the brain’s reward center, but the human brain is constantly trying to maintain balance.

As a result, not only does the brain decrease opioid production, but it also decreases the production of serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters that are crucial for good mental health.

This series of events is what leads to drug dependence. When the body is no longer able to produce its own chemicals, it becomes dependent on an outside source. If that source is unavailable, withdrawal symptoms like aches, pains, nausea, and strong cravings begin.

Heroin Abuse and Brain Damage

Changing the function of the reward center isn’t the only way heroin damages the brain. Opioid receptors also have an effect on breathing. Even non-lethal amounts of heroin can cause depressed breathing.

Insufficient amounts of oxygen reduce brain function and can result in the shutdown of other systems. Permanent brain and organ damage are possible.

A specific type of dementia that resembles Alzheimer’s disease is also linked to heroin abuse. Heroin and other opioids can cause low-grade inflammation in the brain, which researchers believe is the cause of dementia.

Some of the damage caused by heroin may be reversible with the right medical care, but each person’s situation is different. Other factors, such as the person’s general health, genetics, and brain chemistry, can all play a part. It is possible that dementia and other brain changes will remain even when an individual stops using heroin.

Find Help for Heroin Abuse at Insight Recovery Centers

How does heroin affect the brain? Sadly, heroin abuse can severely damage brain function and other systems in the body, especially with long-term or heavy use.  With treatment that includes medical, psychiatric, and nutritional care, many people can fully recover their health.

Call Insight Recovery Centers today at 828.826.1376 to learn more about our heroin addiction treatment program.