What effects does heroin have on the body? National Institute on Drug Abuse NIDA

heroin effect on the brain

The most common cause of immediate brain damage from heroin use occurs when the drug slows breathing to a dangerously low rate, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. To send a message, a neuron releases a  neurotransmitter into the gap (or synapse) between it and the next cell. The neurotransmitter crosses the synapse and attaches to receptors on the receiving neuron, like a key into a lock. Other molecules called transporters recycle neurotransmitters (that is, bring them back into the neuron that released them), thereby limiting or shutting off the signal between neurons. Children exposed to drugs before birth may go on to develop issues with behavior, attention, and thinking. It’s unclear whether prenatal drug exposure continues to affect behavior and the brain beyond adolescence.

With physical dependence, the body adapts to the presence of the drug, and withdrawal symptoms occur if use is reduced abruptly. Opioid receptors in the brain affect how we feel pain, pleasure, depression, anxiety and stress. The brain naturally produces chemicals called endorphins that attach to opioid receptors. Endorphins reduce feelings of pain and help regulate bodily functions. For the brain, the difference between normal rewards and drug rewards can be likened to the difference between someone whispering into your ear and someone shouting into a microphone. Just as we turn down the volume on a radio that is too loud, the brain of someone who misuses drugs adjusts by producing fewer neurotransmitters in the reward circuit, or by reducing the number of receptors that can receive signals.

heroin effect on the brain

The initial effects of heroin occur when the drug attaches to opioid receptors in the brain. It takes less than 20 minutes for the body to convert heroin to morphine and 6-MAM. That’s why most people say the initial high only lasts for between five and 15 minutes. While the terms “drug abuse” and “drug addiction” are often used interchangeably, they’re different. Someone who abuses drugs uses a substance too much, too frequently, or in otherwise unhealthy ways.

Effects of Drug Addiction on the Brain

For all open access content, the Creative Commons licensing terms apply. Pleasurable experience, a burst of dopamine signals that something important is happening that needs to be remembered. This dopamine signal causes changes in neural connectivity that make it easier to repeat the activity again and again without thinking about it, leading to the formation of habits. By Laura DorwartLaura Dorwart is a health journalist 7 topics covered in group therapy for substance abuse with particular interests in mental health, pregnancy-related conditions, and disability rights. She has published work in VICE, SELF, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Week, HuffPost, BuzzFeed Reader, Catapult, Pacific Standard, Health.com, Insider, Forbes.com, TalkPoverty, and many other outlets. Treatment for drug addiction may involve psychotherapy, medication, hospitalization, support groups, or a combination.

heroin effect on the brain

The brain is often likened to an incredibly complex and intricate computer. Instead of electrical circuits on the silicon chips that control our electronic devices, the brain consists of billions of cells, called neurons, which are organized into circuits and networks. Each neuron acts as a switch controlling the flow of information. If a neuron receives enough signals from other neurons that it is connected to, it fires, sending its own signal on to other neurons in the circuit. To understand how heroin affects the brain, we have to understand how the brain works. The brain has millions of cells that react to chemicals in the body, including the things that we consume.

People with drug addictions continue to use drugs compulsively, despite the negative effects. But people may lose enough brain cells to severely change how their brain works. These people may need life support or assistance from caregivers for the rest of their lives. Copyright © 2024 Elsevier B.V., its licensors, and contributors. All rights are reserved, including those for text and data mining, AI training, and similar technologies.

A combination of medication and behavioral therapy has been found to have the highest success rates in preventing relapse and promoting recovery. Forming an individualized treatment plan with your healthcare provider’s help is likely to be the most effective approach. People can become addicted to any psychoactive (“mind-altering”) substance. Common addictive substances include alcohol, tobacco (nicotine), stimulants, hallucinogens, and opioids. The brain remembers situations and circumstances that cause pleasure.

However, men are more likely than women to use illicit drugs, die from a drug overdose, and visit an emergency room for addiction-related health reasons. Women are more susceptible to intense cravings and repeated relapses. Because of these changes, people are driven to seek more heroin — even when the drug is causing serious consequences in their lives. the cycle of alcohol addiction national institute on alcohol abuse and alcoholism niaaa Heroin is so addictive because it changes how a person experiences happiness and other emotions. This learned “reflex” can last a long time, even in people who haven’t used drugs in many years. For example, people who have been drug free for a decade can experience cravings when returning to an old neighborhood or house where they used drugs.

Inside the brain, heroin attaches to opioid receptors and is converted to morphine and another chemical called 6-MAM. The brain is made up of many parts with interconnected circuits that all work together as a team. Different brain circuits are responsible for coordinating and performing specific functions. Networks of neurons send signals back and forth to each other and among different parts of the brain, the spinal cord, and nerves in the rest of the body (the peripheral nervous system).

Drug Addiction in Men and Women

The drug can also relieve pain the same way that prescription opioids relieve pain. High doses of opioids attach to opioid receptors, which prevents the brain from making you feel any type of pain. Morphine and 6-MAM stay in the brain for longer periods of time.

As a result, the person’s ability to experience pleasure from naturally rewarding (i.e., reinforcing) activities is also reduced. Some effects of drug abuse and addiction include changes in appetite, mood, and sleep patterns. More serious health issues such as cognitive decline, major organ damage, overdose, and death are also risks. Addiction to drugs while pregnant can lead to serious outcomes for both mother and child.

Some drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, can activate neurons because their chemical structure mimics that of a natural neurotransmitter in the body. Although these drugs mimic the brain’s own chemicals, they don’t activate neurons in the same way as a natural neurotransmitter, alcohol and aging effects and they lead to abnormal messages being sent through the network. Substance abuse has many potential consequences, including overdose and death. Learn about the effects of drug addiction on the mind and body and treatment options that can help.

  1. Networks of neurons send signals back and forth to each other and among different parts of the brain, the spinal cord, and nerves in the rest of the body (the peripheral nervous system).
  2. Substance abuse has many potential consequences, including overdose and death.
  3. Some drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, can activate neurons because their chemical structure mimics that of a natural neurotransmitter in the body.
  4. Morphine and 6-MAM stay in the brain for longer periods of time.

That’s why many people say using heroin feels like extreme happiness or relaxation. This is why a person who misuses drugs eventually feels flat, without motivation, lifeless, and/or depressed, and is unable to enjoy things that were previously pleasurable. Now, the person needs to keep taking drugs to experience even a normal level of reward—which only makes the problem worse, like a vicious cycle. Also, the person will often need to take larger amounts of the drug to produce the familiar high—an effect known as tolerance. Large surges of dopamine “teach” the brain to seek drugs at the expense of other, healthier goals and activities.

Heroin’s Long-Term Effects on the Brain

Without heroin, the opioid receptors of a dependent person act abnormally. After repeated heroin use, opioid receptors in the brain adapt by becoming less responsive. People with a high tolerance to heroin feel less pleasure when using the drug because their opioid receptors have become less sensitive to its effects. Some people with a high tolerance end up taking higher doses of heroin to feel pleasure. As the person continues to use heroin, opioid receptors continuously adapt to the increasing doses. Drugs interfere with the way neurons send, receive, and process signals via neurotransmitters.

How does dopamine reinforce drug use?

These drugs continue to attach to opioid receptors for several hours. They likely cause prolonged effects that are milder than the initial high caused by heroin, according to a 2013 study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology. Other drugs, such as amphetamine or cocaine, can cause the neurons to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals by interfering with transporters.

Help Someone With Drug Addiction

This leads people to compulsively use drugs in search of another euphoric “high.” The consequences of these neurological changes can be either temporary or permanent. When someone continues to use drugs, their health can deteriorate both psychologically and neurologically. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 100,000 people in the U.S. died from a drug overdose in 2021. Without heroin treatmetn, people addicted to the drug may be unable to quit. They are often incapable of reversing the long-term changes that heroin has caused without professional help.


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