Author: John Carter

What effects does heroin have on the body? National Institute on Drug Abuse NIDA

heroin effect on the brain

Treatment centers that promote abstinence are at odds with the medical standard of care — long-term use of medications, like buprenorphine, methadone and naltrexone. But only about 25 percent of outpatient centers provide them. We invite you to share your experiences at the end of the page.

  1. Scoring the next fix feels like a race against the clock of withdrawal.
  2. Other molecules called transporters recycle neurotransmitters (that is, bring them back into the neuron that released them), thereby limiting or shutting off the signal between neurons.
  3. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals.
  4. Through interviews with users and experts, The New York Times created a visual representation of how these drugs can hijack the brain.
  5. You’re now addicted to opioids and you no longer take the drug to get high, but to escape feeling low.

Once a person has heroin use disorder, seeking and using the drug becomes their primary purpose in life. Tolerance occurs when more and more of the drug is required to achieve the same effects. With physical dependence, the body adapts to the presence of the drug, and withdrawal symptoms occur if use is reduced abruptly. Opioid receptors in the brain affect how we feel pain, pleasure, depression, anxiety and stress. They also affect our appetite, how we breathe and how we sleep. The brain naturally produces chemicals called endorphins that attach to opioid receptors.

Other types of injuries can occur when you are impaired by the drug. Additionally, brain damage can be seen in people who have overdosed on heroin. This kind of brain damage isn’t due to the overdose, but because of the lack of oxygen to the brain (heroin slows down your breathing).

We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers. Withdrawal may occur within a few hours after the last time the drug is taken.


The epidemic has killed more people than H.I.V. at the peak of that disease, and its death toll exceeds those of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq combined. If you or a loved one live with addiction or are using drugs recreationally and want to stop, The Recovery Village® can help. Reach out to one of our representatives today to learn how you can start on your path to recovery. It’s important for people to realize how severe what heroin does to the brain can be, and it doesn’t take years of abuse for the drug to take its toll on the brain. It can happen relatively quickly and can be difficult to reverse.

These memories subconsciously motivate us to seek pleasure by making us crave things that make us happy.

All Roads Lead To Heroin?

Only one in five people who need treatment for drug use actually receive care, and only about half of those are given medication, experts say. Those given medications rarely receive them for long enough. Seventy-seven percent of opioid overdose deaths occur outside medical settings, and more than half occur at home.

heroin effect on the brain

Symptoms of withdrawal include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps (“cold turkey”), and leg movements. Major withdrawal symptoms peak between 24–48 hours after the last dose of heroin and subside after about a week. However, some people have shown persistent withdrawal signs for many months.

Other drugs, such as amphetamine or cocaine, can cause the neurons to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals by interfering with transporters. This too amplifies or disrupts the normal communication between neurons. Some of the changes in your brain with long-term heroin use may result in the inability to control your behavior, problems processing emotions, memory problems and difficulty making decisions. What heroin does to the brain in the long-term can also include reducing your reasoning and problem-solving abilities, and it can make activities like planning ahead and interactions with other people difficult. Even if you stop using heroin, your brain can remember the changes, which may cause you to experience drug cravings and setbacks. These are the circuits in your brain responsible for creating a sense of pleasure when you engage in activities like eating or sex.

As a result, the person’s ability to experience pleasure from naturally rewarding (i.e., reinforcing) activities is also reduced. When opioid receptors adapt to heroin and become less responsive, other changes occur that make the brain rely on the drug to function normally. Without heroin, the opioid receptors of a dependent person act abnormally. This abnormal brain activity causes heroin withdrawal symptoms. Heroin can temporarily relieve feelings of depression or anxiety. The drug can also relieve pain the same way that prescription opioids relieve pain.

Heroin Addiction Explained: How Opioids Hijack the Brain

One expert says the average person could relapse four or five times over eight years to achieve a single year of sobriety. Without heroin treatmetn, people addicted to the drug may be unable to quit. They are often incapable of reversing the long-term changes that heroin has caused without professional help. It is very important to understand how heroin affects the nervous system because it reveals how heroin can create the effects it does, such as the euphoric high, but it also highlights why this is such a dangerous drug.

Chronic heroin use disorder and the brain: Current evidence and future implications

Endorphins reduce feelings of pain and help regulate bodily functions. First, heroin is a central nervous system depressant, as are other opioids, including prescription painkillers. When you take heroin, it breaks down into different chemicals that bind to opioid receptors in your brain. Your body produces its own natural opioids as well, but it’s nothing compared with what happens when you take a drug like heroin. When dependence occurs, you are at risk of experiencing withdrawal symptoms if you stop using the drug. If you don’t take the amount of heroin that your body now thinks that it needs, you will start feeling withdrawal symptoms.

This dopamine signal causes changes in neural connectivity that make it easier to repeat the activity again and again without thinking about it, leading to the formation of habits. We’ll explain to you exactly how our inpatient detox works. More importantly, we’ll listen to your concerns and answer your questions. You’ll feel better just by calling a professional who truly cares. Finally, you’ll hang up the phone and go back to your life feeling hopeful, certain that Addiction Recovery Institute of America will get your life back on track. Zach Lieberman, a New York-based visual artist and programmer, wrote custom software to create the video animations, manipulating color, form and movement.

How Heroin Causes Cravings

Because of these changes, people are driven to seek more heroin — even when the drug is causing serious consequences in their lives. Heroin is so addictive because it changes how a person experiences happiness and other emotions. But people may lose enough brain cells to severely change how their brain works. These people may need life support or assistance from caregivers for the rest of their lives. The most common cause of immediate brain damage from heroin use occurs when the drug slows breathing to a dangerously low rate, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.