Heroin is an illicit opioid. According to the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), heroin can affect cognition, brain function, and overall brain structure with repeated use.
Heroin is also highly addictive, which can make it hard for someone to quit heroin even when their substance use causes complications to their health, quality of life, and overall well-being.
Influence on brain function is only one of the long and short-term effects of heroin abuse.
How Does Heroin Affect The Brain?
Heroin, like other opioids, is classified as a depressant. This means it slows down activity in the central nervous system (CNS), which is made up of the brain and spinal cord.
When used, heroin rapidly enters the brain. It’s then converted to morphine, a natural opiate. Heroin binds to opioid receptors, which are responsible for several bodily processes.
Opioid receptors are associated with:
- pain sensation
- blood pressure
- heart rate
Heroin can also cause euphoria, also known as a “rush” or “high.”
According to the NIDA, heroin can reinforce repeated drug use through its effects on the activity of the limbic system. This controls emotions, including the body’s “fight or flight” response.
Short-Term Effects Of Heroin On The Brain
A pleasurable rush of euphoria, including a powerful sense of happiness and calmness, is a common effect reported by those who use heroin.
Other short-term effects may include:
- surge of pleasure
- pain relief
- clouded mental functioning
- dizziness or drowsiness
- impaired decision-making
- a feeling of calm or relaxation
- decreases appetite
- mood swings
The intensity of heroin’s effects, particularly euphoria, may depend on the amount used, the route of heroin administration, drug purity, and other factors.
Long-Term Effects Of Heroin On The Brain
Chronic heroin use is associated with several health consequences. Over time, repeated heroin use can alter the physiology and physical structure of the brain.
It can also affect the brain in such a way that can make it harder for a person to quit using the drug, and result in heroin addiction.
Below are some of the long-term effects of heroin on the brain.
Cognitive Effects Of Heroin Use
Research shows that chronic heroin abuse can lead to cognitive impairment. This can affect a person’s decision-making skills, stress management, and other cognitive consequences.
Poor decision-making has been associated with high-risk behaviors, including the sharing of drug use equipment and unprotected sexual activity.
Both are risk factors for bloodborne diseases such as hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.
Changes In Brain Structure From Heroin Abuse
According to the NIDA, heroin abuse can lead to a deterioration in the brain’s white matter, which can lead to long-term cognitive impairment.
The repeated use of heroin can also affect the levels of certain brain chemicals found in the brain’s reward system, such as dopamine and serotonin.
These chemicals, also known as neurotransmitters, are involved in a variety of bodily processes, including the regulation of mood, pain sensation, and behavior.
Over time, the use of heroin can impair the body’s ability to produce these neurotransmitters naturally, causing chemical imbalances in the brain.
Heroin’s Effect On Mental Health
While there is limited evidence to tie chronic heroin abuse to independent mental health disorders, long-term heroin use has been associated with feelings of depression and anxiety.
Heroin addiction can significantly impair a person’s quality of life, which may in some cases cause feelings of hopelessness, fear, sadness, and other effects on mental health.
Heroin withdrawal, a consequence of physical drug dependence, can also have side effects on a person’s mental state and emotional well-being.
Tolerance, Dependence, And Addiction
Repeated use of heroin can cause you to develop increased tolerance. This buildup means you’ll need to take a higher dose or use more heroin, to feel the same intensity of effects.
Chronic use can also cause drug cravings and physical dependence. This can lead to withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and agitation sometimes within hours of your last use.
This, in combination with a psychological reliance on heroin, is a primary sign of addiction, also known as heroin use disorder or opioid use disorder.
Without treatment, heroin addiction can grow worse. It can also make you more vulnerable to a heroin overdose.
Can Heroin Cause Permanent Brain Damage?
Chronic heroin abuse and addiction can have long-lasting effects on opioid-sensitive neurons and neural networks in the brain, some of which may be irreversible.
An opioid overdose can reduce the flow of oxygen to the brain, which can, in turn, cause long-lasting, or even permanent brain damage.
Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is a life-saving opioid antagonist that can block the effects of opioid drugs in the brain in the event of an overdose, and prevent life-threatening consequences.
Treatment For Heroin Abuse And Addiction
Heroin is a highly-addictive drug that can have both short and long-term effects. If you or someone you know is addicted to heroin, help may be available at a treatment center near you.
Treatment options for heroin addiction include:
- Heroin detoxification: Heroin detox is generally the first step in addiction treatment and can help treat the initial symptoms of heroin withdrawal which may be highly uncomfortable and distressing.
- Inpatient recovery centers: An intensive treatment program that offers 24-hour supervision and support to help treat the medical and behavioral complications of addiction.
- Medication-assisted treatment (MAT): An evidence-based treatment for opioid addiction that combines behavioral therapy with the use of methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone.
- Outpatient rehab options: This might include MAT, drug counseling, support groups, relapse prevention, and behavioral therapy with an outpatient treatment provider.
The goal of addiction treatment is to address both the physical consequences of chronic drug use, as well as the emotional, mental, and psychological effects of substance use disorders.
This holistic treatment approach can help not only get a person off heroin but help them stay off heroin and build a successful, fulfilling future in recovery.
Find Help For Heroin Addiction Today
Thousands of Americans seek help for substance abuse and drug addiction each year. Recovery from heroin addiction is possible.
To find heroin addiction treatment today for yourself or a loved one, call our helpline to speak with a treatment admissions specialist.Article Sources
- U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
- U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: PubMed