How Does Heroin Affect the Brain?

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By: Renaissance Recovery

Clinically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated:


Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

Heroin is a synthetic substance manufactured 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 man heroin effects on the brain. 

If you face such a situation, seek professional help from Renaissance Recovery Center before the drug destroys your brain health permanently that’s why it’s important to find a heroin addiction treatment program.

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.

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. 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.

How Addictive is Heroin?: Psychological Effects

When you wonder, “How addictive is heroin?” you may also be wondering about the reasons why. Heroin is so addictive that when you take it, it triggers an increase in dopamine production. In other words, it creates a pleasant rush that is almost impossible to ignore.

 When you first take heroin, it binds the opioid receptors in your brain. This binding releases unnaturally high levels of dopamine that your brain craves. The more you take heroin, the more your mind becomes dependant on the heroin to create dopamine. If you suddenly stop taking heroin, your brain suddenly has to revert to life without the dopamine rush. It struggles to cope and process this. One helpful way to imagine this is like a stretched rubber band. You keep pulling it back further and further, and suddenly you let go. If you’re holding the rubber band when you let go, you feel the sting of the snap. In the case of heroin, the sting is the heroin withdrawal symptoms, which may include: 

  • Muscle pain
  • Depression
  • Hallucinations
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares

Let’s take a closer look at this.

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 opioids and then eventually graduate to using heroin.

The highly addictive nature and side effects of heroin on the brain result in overwhelming withdrawal symptoms when you attempt 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 the 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. 

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 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 treatment programs can include IOP, dual diagnosis treatmentmedication-assisted treatment, and more. 

Whatever the case, Renaissance is ready to help you or your loved one conquer addiction, please give us a call today to learn more about how our Orange County rehab can help.866.330.9449

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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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