Many people who use heroin or know people who use heroin wonder, “How does heroin affect the brain?” One of the unfortunate truths of heroin use is that when someone uses heroin, effects on the brain will occur. Some of these effects will initially be temporary but may develop into permanent changes through time. The relationship between heroin and the brain is both chemical and structural. Heroin affects opioid receptors within the brain, changing the way that nerve signals are transmitted. Over time, this change will create actual changes in the structure of the brain.
How Heroin Affects the Brain in the Short-Term
With short-term use, heroin blocks receptors in the brain called opioid receptors. This blockage slows the transmission of nerve signals that transmit pain and suppresses activity in the brain. This effect can slow breathing and lead to sedation or fatigue.
Heroin and Brain Chemistry Short-Term
Many people who want to learn about the effects of heroin on the brain wonder, “What part of the brain does heroin affect?” Heroin has a chemical effect and does not affect a particular part of the brain as much as it affects a particular type of receptor throughout the brain. Heroin causes short-term elevations in the chemical dopamine when used sparingly. The elevations of dopamine cause a pleasurable and euphoric sensation. After using heroin, dopamine elevations are what leads to a high and are what causes increased cravings, eventually leading to addiction.
Long-Term Effects of Heroin Use on the Brain
Heroin can be much more damaging to the brain with long-term use. Studies have shown that repeated heroin use can lead to permanent changes in the structure of the brain and to a deterioration of white matter within the brain. White matter plays an important role in decision making and heroin use could lead to long-term impairment in the decision-making process.
The changes in nerve function that heroin can cause lead to the rewiring of the brain and can change the way that nerve signals transmit throughout the brain. This effect could be a major cause of the changes that occur in the brain.
Heroin and Brain Chemistry Long-Term
When heroin is persistently or repeatedly used, it causes artificially high levels of dopamine over a prolonged time. This increase causes the brain to become accustomed to the presence of the elevated levels of dopamine. This adjustment is called tolerance and results in heroin use not creating the same high that it initially did. A tolerance developing means that greater amounts of heroin need to be used to make higher levels of dopamine, which the brain will adjust to.
Long-term heroin use can also cause dependence, a condition in which the brain not only becomes used to the higher levels of dopamine but starts to depend on these elevated levels to function normally.
Is Brain Damage Caused by Heroin Use Reversible?
The brain is a flexible organ and can adjust to many changes over time. The effects of tolerance and dependence may be overcome when heroin use is stopped for a prolonged period. The actual structural changes that occur with heroin use may, unfortunately, take a long time to heal and may never fully return to normal.
The ability of the brain to recover from the damage caused by heroin depends upon several factors, including how long and how frequently heroin was used, how much heroin was used and how long heroin use has been stopped for. There have been some encouraging studies that found that, for some heroin users, gray matter in the brain can be restored to normal after a month of abstinence.
Key Points: Heroin and the Brain
Heroin can cause several changes to the brain and may lead to irreversible brain damage. Some key points about the effects of heroin on the brain include:
- Heroin causes elevations in the levels of dopamine in the brain
- Heroin causes chemical changes that cause a high
- Long-term heroin use leads to tolerance and dependence developing
- Long-term heroin use can change and damage the brain’s structure
- Stopping heroin use improves brain function
- While some brain function can be regained, brain damage from heroin can be permanent
If you or a loved one are ready to address heroin addiction, contact The Recovery Village. Call to speak with a representative about receiving personalized addiction treatment that also addresses any co-occurring mental health disorders. You deserve a healthier future, call today.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What effects does heroin have on the body?” June 2018. Accessed May 21, 2019. Habal, Rania. “Heroin Toxicity.” Medscape, December 16, 2018. Accessed May 21, 2019. Wang, Xuyi. “Changes in brain gray matter in abstinent heroin addicts.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, December 2012. Accessed May 21, 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What effects does heroin have on the body?” June 2018. Accessed May 21, 2019.
Habal, Rania. “Heroin Toxicity.” Medscape, December 16, 2018. Accessed May 21, 2019.
Wang, Xuyi. “Changes in brain gray matter in abstinent heroin addicts.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, December 2012. Accessed May 21, 2019.