Last updated: 02/20/2019
Author: Addictions.com Medical Review
Reading Time: 3 minutes
As an opiate drug, heroin effects on the brain have as much to do with its close resemblance to the brain’s natural chemicals as it does it’s highly addictive properties. Natural chemical secretions known as endorphins regulate the body’s functions as well as a person’s emotional state. As a heroin “high” brings about intense feelings of euphoria and calm, heroin effects on the brain are far from positive or productive.
Heroin affects the brain in much the same way as the brain’s neurotransmitters do. While this may seem harmless at first, the brain actually stops doing what it’s supposed to do in the process. Not surprisingly, heroin effects on the brain bring about serious consequences that only get worse each time a person uses.
From Heroin to Morphine
Heroin’s physical structure is that of a soluble lipid that easily crosses the blood-brain barrier. Soluble lipids consist of fatty materials that easily dissolve in a liquid-based environment. The blood-brain barrier is designed to keep foreign materials from crossing over from the bloodstream into the brain’s extracellular fluid. Heroin’s close resemblance to brain neurotransmitter chemicals allows it to bypass the blood-brain barrier. Heroin’s easy access into the brain accounts for the intense “rush” users experience as heroin binds to the brain’s natural opiate receptors.
Brain cell metabolism processes quickly convert heroin into morphine. Compared to morphine in its original form, the intensity of heroin effects on the brain are 10 times that of morphine. In effect, users experience the pain-killing effects of morphine times 10 every time they use heroin. Over time, heroin effects on the brain drastically alter and damage the brain’s normal processes.
Brain Opiate Receptors
The brain contains millions of opiate receptors. These receptors are designed to interact with the brain’s natural pain-killing chemicals, also known as endorphins. According to New York University, because heroin is a natural opiate derived from opium poppy plants, the brain can’t tell the difference between its natural endorphin chemicals and heroin.
As a result, the “high” caused by heroin effects on the brain cancel out natural endorphin production processes. In turn, the body interprets heroin effects on the brain as the new “norm” and comes to require these effects in order to function normally.
Over time, the brain comes to expect and depend on heroin’s effects so it gradually cuts back on the amount of endorphins it produces. Heroin users experience this transition in the form of withdrawal symptoms as endorphin levels sink lower and lower.
Brain Reward System
Heroin effects on the brain’s reward system play a central role in the drug’s addiction process. The brain’s reward system regulates pain and pleasure sensations throughout the body. Heroin triggers the pleasure centers in the brain much like natural endorphin chemicals do. As heroin effects are so much stronger than those caused by endorphins, the “high” effect drives users to self-regulate the brain’s pleasure centers by ingesting more and more heroin.
According to the University of Arkansas, when withdrawal symptoms kick in, the brain and body naturally crave the rewarding effects that heroin brings. Ultimately, heroin effects on the brain’s reward system drive the compulsive drug seeking behaviors in addicts.