How Does Heroin Affect the Brain?

Jump to a section
Table of contents
Expand list

Heroin is an opioid drug derived from morphine. It was once used medically as a painkiller but has since been banned due to its highly addictive properties. In fact, while all psychoactive substances can lead to addiction, heroin has always been the substance considered most addictive.

Substance abuse disorders and addiction are hard to understand if you’ve never experienced them firsthand. People might wonder how a person can become addicted in the first place, or why they can't just stop using drugs. As more research is being done on the subject, the public is becoming more aware of the truth behind the seeming moral deficiency.

So, how does heroin affect the brain? Drugs, and especially heroin, are extremely addictive, and they affect the brain in real, chemical, and physical ways, as outlined in this article.There is hope, however, for people suffering from substance abuse and addiction. More research has led to evidence-based treatment options, and comprehensive rehab programs such as Avenues Recovery centers, where a tailor-made approach, like-minded peers, and an experienced and caring staff awaits to help you along your journey to recovery.

What Does Heroin Do to the Brain?

The brain has protein receptor sites for opiates like opium, codeine, morphine, and heroin. Opioid receptors control respiration, blood pressure, and other bodily processes in reaction to the drug. Humans do produce their own opioids, like the feel-good hormone endorphins. Opioids such as heroin bind to opiate-specific receptor sites. This decreases the perception of pain and increases feelings of pleasure by elevating dopamine levels. Heroin causes feelings of intense pleasure, relaxation, and a generally positive feeling. Heroin users experience an extreme high from the large concentration of opioids, which leads to extremely high levels of dopamine being released in the brain.


This powerful drug makes lasting changes in the brain, eventually causing the heroin to take the place of naturally occurring dopamine. Eventually, an addict will not be able to experience pleasure without taking heroin. This causes the person to continually increase the dose in a vicious cycle that dramatically increases the risk of overdose.

Back to top

How Heroin Affects Brain Function in the Short Term

Because the heroin effect on the brain is extremely addictive, even the short-term risk is very real. The pleasurable feeling of using heroin is caused by the drug sticking to opiate receptors in the brain, causing feelings of intense pleasure known as a high. This then sets off a pattern of craving for more of the feeling, more drug use, and higher tolerance, and one can quickly and easily find themselves slipping into addiction or overdose.

Immediate negative effects of heroin can include:

●       Respiratory depression

●       Flushing of the skin

●       Heavy extremities

●       Dry mouth

●       Loss of appetite

●       Constipation

●       Severe itching

●       Mood swings

●       Drowsiness

●       Disorientation

●       Slurred speech

●   Impaired thinking

Even before addiction becomes serious, heroin is an incredibly strong substance that can negatively affect a person’s health from even just one use.

Back to top

Long-Term Heroin Effect on the Brain

Any addiction, but especially one that lasts a long time, can easily affect every aspect of a person’s life. Relationships, employment, self-esteem and mental health, finances, and overall health can all be affected negatively when a person is stuck in the downward spiral of addiction.

Additionally, heroin addiction can cause these long-term problems [1]:

●       Collapsed veins

●       Tolerance and dependence

●       Blood clots due to injection site problems

●       Lung infections like pneumonia or tuberculosis

●       Stroke

●       Overdose

●       Liver and kidney damage

●       Viral infections like HIV or hepatitis from sharing needles

●       Paranoia

●       Trouble sleeping

●       Emotional instability

●       Lying

●   Addiction

Back to top

How Heroin Can Damage The Brain

The human brain is an incredible but very delicate organ. After the opiate receptors in the brain have been exposed to synthetic opioids, like heroin, it will stop producing its own, natural painkillers. This leads to an even higher level of dependence on the drug.

When a person is unable to use heroin but is addicted to it, they will experience heroin withdrawal symptoms. This can look and feel like the flu, with aches and pains, chills, and nausea. Depression and strong cravings may also occur.

Aside from changing the delicate balance of chemicals in the brain and the way the brain reacts to and creates neurotransmitters, there are other ways in which heroin abuse can damage the brain.

Studies show a deterioration in the brain’s white matter linked to heroin use. This can affect decision-making abilities, the ability to regulate behavior, and responses to stressful situations.

Heroin affects the receptors in the brain that are linked to respiration. A person who abuses heroin will experience slower breathing, even at low doses. When breathing becomes shallow, slow or irregular, the body receives less oxygen. With less oxygen, the brain will begin to reduce function of other systems in the body, which could lead to organ damage. Lack of oxygen could also lead to brain damage.Lastly, heroin use has been linked to a form of permanent brain damage that is similar to Alzheimer’s disease [2]. It causes inflammation in the brain, along with a build-up of proteins, and can cause long-lasting symptoms of memory loss. It can even induce a form of dementia.

Back to top

Reversing Brain Damage from Heroin

Some forms of brain damage caused by heroin abuse are permanent. The best treatment for recovery from the ill effects of heroin on the brain and body is to stop using the drug, detox, and treat the addiction.

This should not be attempted without a doctor’s supervision. Medical supervision for heroin detox will likely involve medication management with a drug like buprenorphine. It takes the place of heroin in the brain, so a recovering addict will experience less intense withdrawal symptoms. The use of this in-between will then be tapered by a doctor until your brain can produce dopamine without the artificial heroin as a crutch.

Back to top

Quit Wondering ‘How Does Heroin Affect the Brain?’

As serious as a heroin addiction can be, there is always hope for recovery. Many addicts have worked through the process of recovery and continued on to live happy, healthy, abstinent lives. You don’t have to go through the journey alone. The warm and knowledgeable staff at Avenues Recovery are at hand to answer any and all of your questions. When you are ready, we are available to create a tailor-made treatment plan, welcome you into one of our inpatient addiction rehabilitation centers, and help you on your journey to health and recovery. Contact us today to hear more about how we can help you.

Back to top




Check your insurance

We received your insurance request!

We will get back to you shortly. While you wait... you may find our resource blog helpful. Take a look below: