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Heroin and the Brain: How Heroin Alters Brain Function

Dillon McClernon

Authored by Dillon McClernon

Considering How Heroin Affects the Brain Can Help Drug Abuse Rehab

As an opioid drug derived from morphine, heroin is a highly addictive substance that can easily lead to changes in brain function. Understanding how heroin and the brain interact can empower both psychologists and clients to face heroin addiction and ensure drug abuse rehab in a proactive manner. Although heroin was largely misunderstood until the late 20th century, scientific and medical advances have been made since then that contribute to understanding how heroin influences the brain.

In 1973, researchers at Johns Hopkins University discovered that human brains maintain protein receptor sites for such opiates as opium, codeine, morphine, and heroin. Opioid receptors control respiration, arousal, blood pressure, and other bodily processes. Researchers have revealed that humans produce their own opioids, such as enkephalin, dynorphin, and endorphins. Opioids such as heroin bind to opiate-specific receptor sites and consequently decrease pain perception and increase mood through the elevation of dopamine levels. Users experience an extreme high from the large influx of opioids, which leads to extremely high levels of dopamine.

Heroin and the Brain: Short-Term and Long-Term Side Effects

Heroin users typically seek the associated high, which is generally experienced as a rush of euphoria. It can increase the body’s dopamine levels up to 10 times its normal level. Some individuals who engage in recurrent heroin use also develop a tolerance to the drug and require more of the drug to experience the same euphoric effects. Additionally, some may even experience a decrease in pain threshold and grow more sensitive to pain overall. This may occur over time—or even after a few uses.

As users increase the amount of heroin they consume, they put themselves at greater risk for overdose, which often includes hypoxia, a condition that refers to decreased or delayed breathing and can result in short-term and long term-effects, including coma and permanent brain damage. The direct interactions between the brain and heroin are usually irreversible given the nature of the damage.

Additional Side Effects of Heroin

  • Spontaneous abortion
  • Infectious diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis
  • Collapsed veins
  • Heart lining and valve infections
  • Abscesses
  • Gastrointestinal cramping
  • Constipation
  • Liver and kidney disease
  • Pulmonary problems, such as pneumonia
  • Dependence

The staff at Recovery Centers of America at Bracebridge Hall manages withdrawal symptoms through medically assisted drug abuse rehab. We work to reverse how heroin changes the brain through extensive long-term treatment. For more information about treatment options and services, call us at 1-800-RECOVERY.

Authored by

Dillon McClernon

Dillon McClernon

Dillon currently serves as the Senior Director of Sales and Marketing at RCA. After his tenure as Chief Communications Officer and senior advisor to RCA, he opted for a full-time position at RCA where he could build a new team linking sales and marketing to directly impact RCA’s mission of saving 1 million lives.


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