How Opiates Change the Brain

The way you feel when you take opioids is entirely due to the effects they have on your brain and central nervous system. When someone takes opioids, whether it’s prescription painkillers or an illegal opiate like heroin, they initially get a tremendous rush of pleasure or elation from it.

Before looking at the specifics of how opiates change the brain, it’s valuable to cover the effect they have on the brain even when they’re taken for the first time.

How Opiates Change the Brain
How opiates change the brain has a lot to do with why you feel euphoric when you first take them.

Opioids are a type of medicine that are intended to relieve pain when they’re given in prescription form. Along with prescription painkillers like Vicodin, opioids also include the illegal drug heroin. Other commonly used opioids include morphine and codeine, among several others.

The human brain makes its own small levels of opioids which bind to the opioid receptors found in the brain, the spine and throughout the central nervous system.

When someone takes opioids, however, the effect is hundreds of times stronger. When someone takes heroin or a prescription painkiller, they’re flooded with a rush of dopamine, which is a naturally-occurring chemical.

There’s an intense sense of euphoria that’s much more magnified than what any person could experience on their own without the introduction of opiates. Other effects of taking opiates include blocking messages of pain, creating a calming feeling, and slowing the respiratory system. Often people may feel nausea or the need to vomit when they first take opiates as well, because of the way they interact with the brain.

Your brain is wired to want to keep repeating activities that brought pleasure, and that’s why when you take opioids and experience a high or sense of pleasure from them, your brain remembers it, and the reward circuits want you to continue doing that again and again. This is what leads to addiction to drugs including not just opioids but other substances as well.

In terms of long-term changes in the brain when someone takes opiates, first as was touched on above, the brain’s reward circuit starts to in a sense rewire itself. This makes it harder for someone who’s used opioids, particularly for a longer period of time, to then feel pleasure or reward on their own without the use of the drug.

Opiates also change the brain because the brain stops reacting to the drugs, and with opiates, this can happen relatively quickly. It’s almost as if the presence of the opiates become like a new normal to the brain, and when that happens, the person is building a tolerance. Tolerance is what leads to a physical dependence on opiates, and addiction in many cases.

There has also been research on how opiates change the brain showing that long-term abuse of these drugs can completely alter the parts of the brain that respond to stress and handle motivation. Some areas of the brain in long-term opiate abusers have shown signs of shrinking or going dark, and others have also demonstrated changes in the level of certain chemicals that then change how they respond to various stimuli.

When someone’s brain has been changed from opioids, they will often have strong cravings for drugs when they experience emotional or physical distress, see things they associated with drugs, or when they’re near drugs or have access to them. That rewiring of the brain that comes with long-term opiate use is why it can be so difficult to stop using these drugs and to resist various temptation.

While the above tends to reference long-term opiate users, these aren’t the only people who’s brains can change. How opiates affect the brain can also be related to short-term use. For example, some research has shown that in as little as a month of using morphine the human brain underwent neuroplastic changes. There were changes in volume and a reduction in gray matter. There was also shifts in the amygdala, which relates to reward-based learning and associative learning, as well as reinforcement and dependence.

As a result of the increasing research on how opiates change the brain, doctors and scientists are seeing that using opiates, even for a very short period, has the potential to change behavior patterns over the long-term even after the pleasure that comes from using the drug has diminished, and that’s what creates the potential to misuse and become addicted to opiates.

How Opiates Change the Brain
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