How Does Heroin Affect the Brain?

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

July 28, 2023

Table of Contents

Heroin is a synthetic substance and opioid drug derived from the opium poppy plant. Initially, doctors prescribed this substance as a prescription painkiller, but the U.S. government outlawed heroin in the early 20th century because of its highly addictive nature. Heroin has a number of different psychological and physical effects that can be catastrophic to the body. Today we’re going to look at the main heroin effects on the brain and how this form of drug abuse can be detrimental to the body. 

What Does Heroin Do to Your Brain?

Heroin has both short- and long-term effects on the brain. Besides physical dependence, chronic abuse of heroin leads to tolerance. As the brain adapts to the presence of the substance in the body, you will need higher doses to achieve similar effects — this is how a substance abuse problem begins and heroin use disorder develops. This also leads to an increased chance of heroin overdose among heroin users.

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Heroin Effects On The Brain

Among the most significant effects of heroin on your brain is the hindrance of the brain’s ability to produce natural dopamine. The receptors receive intense stimulation from ingested heroin, hindering the ability to provide the chemicals naturally. As a result, individuals can become entirely dependent on heroin to get dopamine and regulate pain. If you are in this phase and cut off heroin abruptly, severe withdrawal symptoms will manifest in a few hours — which can prove to be not only uncomfortable, but life-threatening.

Many chronic abusers of heroin suffer from long-term brain imbalance and brain damage. Heroin addiction resulting from chronic use of the drug:

  • Creates neurological imbalances
  • Deteriorates the brain’s white matter
  • Reduces reasoning and decision-making skills
  • Causes impulsive behaviors
  • Creates hormonal imbalances
  • Alters the brain’s physical structure

Experts concur that continual exposure to heroin leads to the development of a body syndrome similar to dementia. The resultant protein build-up in the brain also leads to inflammations, and brain changes resembling the Alzheimer’s condition. As such, heroin affects the brain by causing severe cognitive impairment.

How Does Heroin Affect Cellular Communication in the Brain?

Heroin binds to specific receptors in the body that releases neurotransmitters, dopamine, in the brain. Once released, these neurotransmitters regulate pain and cause feelings of happiness and even euphoria. 

Unfortunately, when released, the good feelings associated with the dopamine release reinforce the drug-taking behaviors. While the specific side effects and reinforcement of this behavior will depend on a number of factors including how much is used, how long it has been used, and more the end result is increased addiction potential and even changes in brain physiology.

Let’s take a closer look at the psychological effects of the drug and what heroin does to the brain.

Psychological Effects of Heroin Addiction

Heroin is an extremely addictive substance. It is so addictive that when you take it, it triggers an increase in dopamine production which can impact the brain’s reward system. In other words, when someone abuses heroin it creates a pleasant rush that is almost impossible to ignore that can have a major negative impact on brain function.

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

Brain charts showing the effects of heroin on the brain

Most of the people struggling with opiate use disorders have a long history of abusing several other substances, such as cocaine.

Furthermore, a large number of young people who abuse heroin in the U.S. also abuse other prescription opioids. In some cases, they may have begun using prescription painkillers for pain relief and then eventually graduate to using heroin.

The highly addictive nature and side effects of heroin on the brain cause users to experience heroin withdrawal symptoms when attempting to quit. Some of the common signs include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Tremors and physical agitation
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Muscle pains and twitches
  • Intense craving for the drug

Overcoming Heroin Effects on the Brain

Despite the many problems and symptoms that can occur from heroin use, there are heroin treatment options available to help those who have fallen victim to addiction. 

Although many people resort to self-recovery methods at home, reaching out to a rehab facility is ideal for treating substance use disorders. Professional rehab centers are equipped with professional staff and medical knowledge to help you or your loved one through every step of the recovery process. From detoxification to intensive outpatient treatment to an aftercare program, rehab centers like Renaissance Recovery can provide it all to those who are looking to get help. 

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Get Professional Treatment for Heroin Addiction at Renaissance Recovery

Heroin affects the brain in many ways, and if you or your loved one doesn’t work to conquer this problem, the addiction will only grow worse and worse, putting a life at risk. You can overcome both the short- and long-term effects of heroin abuse by enrolling in a rehab program.

Renaissance Recovery’s heroin addiction treatment program utilizes a number of different treatment modalities to ensure that any underlying problems that may be contributing to or causing addiction are dealt with. These evidence-based treatment programs can include IOP, dual diagnosis treatmentmedication-assisted treatment, and more. 

Along with these, Renaissance Recovery also offers support for family members through family therapy sessions to help clients and their families rebuild broken connections and learn how best to support their loved ones as they work their way through this recovery process.

If you are looking for help for your loved one or are worried that you may soon experience withdrawal symptoms, Renaissance is ready to help you or your loved one fight back against addiction, please give us a call today to learn more about how our Orange County rehab can help.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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