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How Does Heroin Affect the Brain?

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

February 16, 2024

Table of Contents

Heroin significantly affects the brain by activating opioid receptors that hi-jack the brain’s reward system, and can deplete natural systems in the brain that give natural feelings of pleasure and euphoria. This, along with increasing tolerance, quickly leads to heavy reliance and addiction to heroin. Heroin also carries a high risk of overdose, especially since individuals tend to frequently need to up the dosage to get the same effects.

Heroin’s grip on the brain is powerful and can leave individuals struggling to break free. This highly addictive drug hijacks the brain’s reward system, creating a relentless cycle of dependence.

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This blog explores how heroin affects the brain, leading to addiction and increasing the risk of overdose. We’ll delve into the science behind its hold and offer resources for those seeking help and recovery.

What Does Heroin Do to Your Brain?

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. 

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.

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 release 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. 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. 

Heroin FAQs

How much dopamine does heroin release?

Heroin releases a large amount of dopamine in the brain, contributing to intense feelings of euphoria and pleasure and leading to rapid addiction.

What does heroin do to the body?

Heroin depresses the central nervous system, causing slowed breathing, heart rate, and overall sedation in the body.

How does heroin work in the brain?

In the brain, heroin is converted to morphine and binds to opioid receptors, inhibiting the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and decreasing the perception of pain.

Are there neurotransmitters involved in heroin use?

Yes, neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine, are involved in heroin use, playing a key role in its addictive nature.

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Get Treatment for Heroin Addiction at Renaissance Recovery

Breaking free from heroin addiction is possible.

If you or someone you love is struggling with heroin, know that there is hope and support available. While the effects of heroin can be severe, recovery is achievable with the right help.

Renaissance Recovery offers a comprehensive heroin addiction treatment program that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of addiction. Our program utilizes evidence-based modalities like IOP, dual diagnosis treatment, and medication-assisted treatment to create a personalized path to recovery.

We also understand the importance of family support. Our Orange County rehab program includes family therapy sessions to help mend broken connections and equip loved ones with the tools to support their recovering family member.



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.

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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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