How Does Heroin Affect the Brain?

Legacy Healing Center Blog

Substance use disorders, specifically the resulting chemical dependence and addiction, are a mystery to most of us. Here at our treatment center in Cincinnati, OH, we want you to be able to understand “How does heroin affect the brain?” When discussing the effects of heroin on the brain, it is important to keep in mind that this information also relates to other opiates, like prescription pain medications. All opiates affect brain chemistry and functioning similarly, ultimately hijacking the brain’s reward system.

Using heroin can impact various parts of your body in a number of different ways, but some of the most damaging effects of heroin actually occur in the brain. When you inject, sniff, snort, or smoke heroin, the drug enters your body and binds to mu-Opioid receptors in the brain’s cortex, limbic system, and brain stem, which work together to form your brain’s reward system.

Your brain naturally produces and releases opioid chemicals that help to relieve pain. These natural chemicals aren’t strong enough to help stop chronic pains, though these bursts of opioid chemicals when you’re in pain will help to take some of the discomforts away. Heroin is the stronger version of these opioid neurotransmitters. When it binds to these receptors, it releases a surge of dopamine that helps to calm you and make you feel better. Once your brain has gotten a slight taste for this influx of happiness, it becomes harder for your brain to release natural opioid chemicals. This makes your brain feel that it’s essential for you to consume more drugs to achieve this feeling again.


What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an opioid drug derived from morphine, one of many naturally occurring opiates. It is a natural substance that comes from the poppy plant. Even though heroin comes from a natural plant, the substance is illegal and highly addictive. Heroin can be a white or brown powder or a black sticky substance known as black tar heroin. 

Although heroin was once a prescription painkiller, the drug was outlawed in the early 20th century because it was extremely addictive. Heroin is a Schedule I drug, meaning it currently has no recognized medical use and is highly addictive, which also means it has a high potential for abuse. 


Short-Term Effects of Heroin on the Brain

In the short term, heroin affects the mental health of the user by giving an intense and unnatural sense of pleasure and well-being. Some short-term effects include:

  • Drowsiness and fogged memory
  • Slowed breathing
  • Depleted attention
  • A heavy feeling in the limbs
  • A state of confusion


Long-Term Effects of Heroin on the Brain

  • Blood clots
  • Lung infections which can include tuberculosis or pneumonia
  • Damage to blood vessels that lead to the liver, lungs, and kidneys
  • Infectious diseases such as hepatitis or HIV
  • Fatal overdose

Some lasting effects on your brain from using heroin are cognitive impairment, deterioration of white matter, long-term imbalances, and respiratory suppression. 


Find Help at Legacy Healing Center

Understanding “How does heroin affect the brain?” can help you avoid any type of abuse. But if you want to recover from heroin addiction, this is one of the most challenging drug use disorders to overcome. Accomplishing this alone is a bit like trying to climb Mount Everest without oxygen. Here at our treatment center, our holistic approach and team of compassionate professionals are here to identify the treatment process best suited to the needs of an addicted individual.


For more information about our levels of care and other therapy programs, call Legacy Healing Center today at (513) 586-4971


Related Readings

Toxic Brain Injury: Long-Term Effects of Drug Overdose on the Brain

The Difference Between Heroin and Fentanyl