How Does Heroin Affect The Brain?

Using heroin affects your brain both immediately and in the long term. In the short term, it takes control of your nervous system, slowing your breathing and heart rate. The long-term effects damage white matter and shrink dopamine receptors.

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Heroin use affects the brain of the user from the beginning of substance use through to the stage of heroin addiction.

The effects of heroin can range from intensely pleasurable to very dangerous. The intense high of heroin leads users to seek more of the drug which can lead to dangerous and damaging effects on the brain.

Find out more about the effects of heroin use.

How Heroin Affects The Brain

Heroin is an opiate. Like all opiates, it attaches to the brain’s opioid receptors dulling pain and giving the person an intense high or “rush.” But the effects of heroin quickly turn negative.

The drug also interacts with the brain stem where breathing and heart rate are controlled. This is why respiratory functions can dip dangerously low when someone uses heroin.

Here are some more details on how heroin affects the brain.

Hijacking Opioid Receptors

Our brains have what are called mu-opioid receptors (MORs). These receptors control pain, feelings, and hormones when they receive naturally occurring neurotransmitters.

There are MORs in what is referred to as the reward system of the brain. When these are activated, they send dopamine to the body, creating a sense of well-being.

The reason why heroin gives the user such an intense high is that, as an opioid, it hijacks the MORs in the reward center and sends dopamine into the body.

Effects On Brain White Matter

White matter is found in deep tissue areas of the brain and protects nerve fibers, improving the speed and transmission of signals in the brain that are carried along the paths of those fibers.

Heroin addiction can have a damaging effect on the white matter, which can negatively affect the user’s decision-making ability, self-control, and ability to cope with difficult situations.

Changes To Brain Structure

Research reports indicate that heroin abuse affects the mental health of users by changing the physical structure of the brain.

Structural brain changes can include a decrease in the dopamine receptors which can result in depression, paranoia, and even psychosis.

Decreases Oxygen Supply To The Brain

Heroin can also damage the brain due to how the presence of the drug affects the brain stem. Remember that heroin slows breathing and heart rate by dampening activity in the brain stem.

This, in turn, results in less oxygen getting to the brain which can damage other brain functions.

Changes To The Brain’s Vascular Structure

The acidity of heroin can affect a user’s veins by hardening them. This condition is called venous sclerosis. The hardening of veins can also affect veins that carry blood in the brain.

Short-Term Mental Effects Of Heroin Use

In the short term, heroin affects the mental health of the user by giving an intense and unnatural sense of pleasure and well-being.

But even in the short term, that rush dissolves and gives way to mental confusion and difficulty thinking as the user becomes drowsy and experiences slower breathing and heart rate.

Long-Term Mental Effects Of Heroin Addiction

In the long term, heroin addiction severely damages the user’s mental health. Heroin creates unnatural dopamine highs that the brain compensates for by shrinking its response to naturally created endorphins.

This means that heroin addiction can result in an emotionally flat response to normal life pleasures even after physical dependence has ended.

Heroin use can result in:

  • unnatural mood swings
  • depression
  • insomnia
  • paranoia
  • psychosis

Treating Heroin Drug Use

Heroin addiction, like other forms of substance abuse, can be treated through medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Drugs like methadone and buprenorphine can help with withdrawal symptoms.

Heroin addiction can also be treated through evidence-based counseling approaches.

These therapies can help a recovering heroin user understand and manage the emotional damage as a result of having been addicted to the drug.

Other program options include:

Get The Care You Need For Heroin Use At Bedrock Recovery Center

You can get the help that you or your loved one need for substance abuse and heroin addiction.

Addiction treatment is available at Bedrock Recovery Center through our residential program and other program options.

You don’t have to quit cold turkey and you can get help with heroin detox. Call our helpline today to learn about our recovery programs and what they can do for you.

  1. Drug Enforcement Agency Museum — Opium Poppy
  2. Drug Enforcement Agency Museum — Opium Poppy
  3. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus — White matter of the brain,the%20white%20matter%20its%20color
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse — Drugs, Brains, and Behavior The Science of Addiction
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse — Research Report Series: Heroin

Written by Bedrock Recovery Center Editorial Team

© 2023 Bedrock Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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