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Heroin and Opioids: How they Affect the Brain and Cause Addiction

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Heroin and Opioids: How they Affect the Brain and Cause Addiction

Many individuals falsely assume that addiction can be solved by abstinence and discipline.  While it is possible for some to stop chronic use of potent drugs like heroin and opioids without appropriate treatment and relapse prevention training, it usually turns out to be a temporary thing. The bottom line is that daily abuse of these drugs can change normal brain functions to such an extent that it requires a strategic drug treatment to restore them.  Short term fixes and failure to address the core issues of addiction usually result in multiple relapse events, which for some, can be fatal.

Based on studies conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), an estimated 2.1 million Americans are struggling with a heroin or opioid pain pill addiction. Records indicate that the number of opioid prescriptions written for Americans increased from 79 million in 1991 to nearly 207 million in 2013. In fact, according to the NIDA, Americans consume almost 100% of the world’s hydrocodone products such as Vicodin and 81% of Oxycodone products like Percocet. Vicodin and Percocet are two of the most commonly abused drugs in the U.S. today.  Vicodin is the combination of Hydrocodone, which is a semi-synthetic opioid agonist and acetaminophen. Oxycodone is another powerful opioid that is combined with acetaminophen and marketed under the brand name Percocet.  Because so many people have access to these drugs, whether for medical or non-medical reasons, they have become a key factor in the opioid addiction epidemic. Many prescription drug users who become addicted to these drugs, eventually segue to heroin in search of a cheaper way to get high.

Effects of Prescription Opioids and Heroin

A large part of the problem for most individuals with addiction is the propensity to relapse after a period of abstinence.  Thanks to new technology, scientist now have a better understanding of how these substances affect the brain to cause and perpetuate addiction. Research studies also indicate a number of variables that can determines whether an individual will become dependent on substances like opioids and heroin.  Some of these factors include:

  • Genetic predisposition or a history of addiction in the family.
  • Frequent or constant exposure to environments that favor or condone drug use.
  • Too much or too easy access to drugs. Many teens begin using prescription opioids they find in their medicine cabinets at home. In addition, heroin is one of the cheapest drugs available from street dealers.
  • Frequency and duration of use.

Scientists explain that after consumption, heroin and opioids like Hydrocodone and Oxycodone travel through the bloodstream to the brain and attach to proteins or opioid receptors that are on the surface of specific brain cells. The connection between the drugs and these sensitive receptors causes a biochemical feel-good reaction in the brain.  The activation of pleasure sensors begins the process that, during periods of abstinence, triggers the need for the drugs, which eventually also motivates repeated use of opioids and heroin.

According to researchers, a primary brain circuit activated by heroin or prescription opioids is the mesolimbic or midbrain reward system. Signals generated in the ventral tegmental area of the brain result in the release of the chemical dopamine in another part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens that leads to feelings of pleasure. In addition, the brain registers and records a memory that is linked to these pleasurable feelings and the environment and circumstances under which drug use repeatedly occurs. These later become triggers that generate cravings and the use of these substances after short or even long periods of abstinence. Scientists call these drug-related memories “conditioned associations” which ultimately become the primary drivers for the uncontrollable cravings experienced by addicts in recovery. If you or someone you love is addicted to heroin or prescription opioids, now is the time to seek help. Contact a drug treatment center to speak to a caring addiction professional today.

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