Fentanyl is one of the most potent pain relievers available. It’s a prescription opioid that helps with the management of severe, chronic pain, most often in patients with cancer. Unfortunately, because it is a fast-acting opioid that can create a dramatic sense of euphoria when people begin using it, there is a high potential for abuse.

Fentanyl is one of the key culprits in the opioid epidemic that’s taken hold around the United States because of how potent it is and how easy it is to obtain.

While it is a Schedule II drug that’s meant only to be given in very specific circumstances by prescription, Chinese manufacturers often send versions of it to Mexico, where it then comes into the United States.

Fentanyl is considered to be 100 times more potent than morphine, which is one of the reasons why it has such a significant potential for abuse.

How Fentanyl Affects the Brain

As with other opioids, including heroin and morphine, fentanyl binds to the opioid receptors that are found throughout the brain and the body. They’re located in areas that regulate how you experience pain and also how your emotions are regulated.

When you take a drug like fentanyl and it binds to these receptors, they flood your brain’s reward centers with dopamine. Dopamine occurs naturally, but not at levels like it does when someone takes fentanyl. This flood of dopamine is what creates euphoria and a sense of extreme relaxation.

What fentanyl does to your brain and how fentanyl affects the brain are similar to heroin, but even more powerful. In addition to euphoria and relaxation, other signs of the effects of the drug can include nausea, drowsiness, sedation, confusion, respiratory depression, respiratory arrest, coma and death.

The Dangers of How Fentanyl Affects the Brain

What fentanyl does to your brain not only explains why people feel high from it but also why it’s so dangerous.

Your opioid receptors are responsible for controlling your respiration and rate of breathing. When you take a prescribed dose of fentanyl, it can slow down your respiration, but if you take higher doses, it can cause you to stop breathing.

With the powerful nature of fentanyl, your risk of overdose is already increased over taking even other dangerous opioids like heroin.

What fentanyl does to your brain demonstrates why it has such a high likelihood of abuse and dependence. When you take it, and you get that initial flood of dopamine, it can alter your mood and perception via the limbic system. Your brain is wired to want to continue seeking out things that bring pleasure, and in this case, it’s the drug. That’s one of the reasons opioids are so addictive. Drugs like fentanyl in many ways rewire your brain so that you’re conditioned to continue seeking it.

When you take fentanyl repeatedly, there’s not only the triggering of your reward system that comes into play, but you eventually build a tolerance for that drug and how it interacts with your brain. You’ll then need more of the drug to feel that same euphoric rush, and your brain ultimately stops working in the same way it did before you used opioids.

Your brain will no longer produce as much dopamine as it did naturally before you started taking drugs, which is why so many people who are addicted to fentanyl and other drugs feel depressed.

Other things to know about how fentanyl affects the brain and what fentanyl does to your brain include:

  • Opioids decrease your brain’s natural production of norepinephrine and depress the central nervous system
  • They reduce not only functions of the respiratory system, like breathing, but they also slow your heart rate and reduce your body temperature
  • It’s believed that chronic, long-term use of fentanyl and opioids can deteriorate the white matter in your brain. When this happens, changes can occur to how your emotions are regulated, how you react to stress and your decision-making

While much of the attention of the abuse of fentanyl is placed on people who abuse it, it’s also important to realize that there are people who get addicted without abusing it and only taking it as directed by a doctor.

Withdrawal From Fentanyl

Understanding fentanyl withdrawal symptoms can help people recognize the signs of addiction in themselves or friends and family members. When you build a tolerance for fentanyl and then stop using it, you may experience symptoms of withdrawal.

Because of the potency of fentanyl, the withdrawal symptoms can also be severe and include restlessness, sweating, anxiety, irritability, nausea, vomiting, weakness, cramps, insomnia and high blood pressure.

It’s important for people to realize what fentanyl does to your brain, even when you’re using it as prescribed. The ways fentanyl affect the brain are even more dramatic when you’re misusing it due to an addiction. If you live with a fentanyl addiction or have a friend or family member who does, call The Recovery Village today to get started on addiction treatment.

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Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Conor Sheehy, PharmD, BCPS, CACP
Dr. Sheehy completed his BS in Molecular Biology at the University of Idaho and went on to complete his Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) at the University of Washington in Seattle. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.