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How Heroin Affects The Brain: A Comprehensive Guide

how does heroin affect the brain

How Heroin Affects The Brain: A Comprehensive Guide


In a world where substance abuse and addiction remain persistent challenges, the narratives are as diverse as the individuals who grapple with them. Whether driven by curiosity, peer pressure, or an attempt to escape life’s burdens, the path into the realm of addiction is seldom straightforward. From alcohol to prescription medications, the range of substances people turn to in search of relief or recreation is wide, and so are the stories that unfold.

This blog takes you inside the brain of a person with drug abuse, primarily focusing on heroin addiction, covering aspects of what does heroin look like, how does heroin affect the brain, what are the different forms of heroin, how does heroin addiction affects mental health and some proven treatment ways to cure this addiction.

What does heroin look like?

Heroin can look like a couple of different things, light in color to dark in color of a powder substance similar to that of sugar and flour mixed together. Heroin typically appears as a fine, white to brownish powder or a sticky, dark substance known as “black tar” heroin. The color and consistency of heroin can vary depending on factors such as its origin, purity, and the substances it has been mixed with.

Here are the common forms of heroin:

  • White Powder Heroin: This type of white or off-white powder heroin is typically found in Eastern regions and is more likely to be pure compared to other forms. However, purity can vary greatly.
  • Brown Powder Heroin: Brown heroin is a less pure form of the drug and may be brown or beige in color. It often contains impurities and adulterants.
  • Black Tar Heroin: This type of heroin is dark, sticky, and resembles a tar-like substance. It is typically found in the western United States and is less processed than powdered heroin. Black tar heroin may contain higher levels of impurities.
  • Heroin Pills: In some cases, heroin is pressed into pill form, which may be disguised as prescription medications. These pills can come in various shapes and colors.

How does Heroin come into the picture?

The drug has its roots in the opium poppy and evidence of the cultivation of these poppies has been found far back as Neolithic times more than 6000 years ago. Poppies were slit open and their opium-containing SAP was collected and consumed, hence, in this way, opium remained a popular drug for millennia. The drug morphine was first extracted in 1810 from the resin of opium poppy and it was found that morphine has incredible pain-killing effects producing a state of numbness, a new euphoria that made it a go-to drug for surgery and to our surprize, it’s still used today when other painkillers fall flat. Little did we know how addictive morphine can be, it was used liberally during the American Civil War and it left tens of thousands of soldiers hopelessly addicted and dependent on the drug.

In this response, heroin made its grand entrance derived from morphine by a German scientist and was marketed as a new wonder drug, a safe and non-addictive alternative to morphine. Curing headaches, colds and coughs, depression, and even old age are some of the use cases it was launched for. But in reality, heroin was addictive and was distributed in an unregulated pattern for over a decade. Heroin was legally restricted under the Geneva Convention in 1925.

Ways of consuming heroin

Heroin is a highly dangerous and illicit substance with numerous harmful ways it can be consumed. It’s important to understand these methods to raise awareness about the risks and consequences associated with heroin use.

Here are some harmful ways heroin is consumed:

  • Injection: Injecting heroin directly into the bloodstream is one of the most dangerous and harmful methods, yet one of the most common ones. Users often dissolve the drug in water and then inject it into a vein (intravenous), muscle (intramuscular), or under the skin (subcutaneous). This method can lead to immediate and severe health risks, including the transmission of bloodborne diseases like HIV and hepatitis, as well as vein damage and infections.
  • Smoking: Heroin can be smoked in various forms, such as by heating it on aluminum foil or using a specialized pipe. Smoking heroin can lead to lung and respiratory issues, as well as damage to the mucous membranes in the mouth and throat.
  • Snorting: Some people make powdered heroin and snort it through the nose. This method of consuming heroin has the ability to damage the nasal passages, chronic congestion, and damage to the nasal septum.
  • Suppository: In rare cases, heroin may be consumed rectally as a suppository. This method still carries the risk of overdose and the potential for physical harm.

How does heroin affect the brain?

The trajectory of how heroin affects the brain is a process that takes place within 12 hours of injecting this into your body. When injected or smoked, the active chemical compound in heroin, diamorphine is able to reach the brain quickly via the blood. Once in the brain, enzymes convert it to morphine and it starts to alter the balance of natural chemicals in the nervous system. Zooming into the brain, you will find billions of neurons responsible for relaying information, and between the billions of connections called synapses. At the synapses, the heroine-derived morphine binds to specific opioid receptors, and that triggers the release of dopamine which is largely known as the feel-good hormone.

As more and more heroin reaches the brain and tricks it into releasing more and more dopamine, users experience something often described as a rush of euphoria. While that might not sound too bad, it’s only the tip of the heroin iceberg and what follows is much more dangerous and damaging. As morphine and diamorphine are painkillers because of their properties of slowing the nervous system down after the initial rush of dopamine, and euphoria, heroin users will begin to feel drowsy. They’ll be unable to think clearly and their heart rate and breathing rate will be severely slowed and without enough oxygen getting into the blood, this tar-like substance increases the chances of coma and brain damage.

This can last for several hours depending on the dose but even if you manage to avoid the perils of a heroin trip, the danger is far from over. This is primarily because of its predecessors morphine and opium, heroin is unbelievably addictive. Even after using it once, you can build up both tolerance and physical dependence that change your brain and your behavior forever.

Tolerance is where the intensity of the drugs affects the decrease each time it’s taken which means you need more of the same substance to achieve the same high and when you take more, the slowing effects are greater and long-lasting, putting you at more and more risk. On the other hand, physical dependence implies that the body adapts to having the drug within it, and whenever you don’t have heroin in your system, you observe horrible withdrawal symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, muscle pain, restlessness, insomnia, etc.

Concisely, when you become addicted to heroin which is super easy to do, seeking and taking more of the drug becomes your sole purpose in life which is the peak of addiction that you can reach. It’s not just the psychological effects that are distressing, evidence shows that the continued presence of heroin in the brain can fundamentally change its structure and function and these changes are not easy to reverse.

Long-term effects on the brain

The fact that heroin binds to and activates opioid receptors in the brain. Opioid receptor activation is associated with increased dopamine release within the brain reward center, leading to a euphoric sensation.

High risk of respiratory depression which could lead to lethal overdose.

Some adulterant or “cutting” agents don’t dissolve completely in the injection solution which can lead to serious health problems.

The surge of euphoria experienced from using heroin, especially via injection, can be powerfully reinforcing, driving people to use it again and again. As mentioned before, this repeated use can quickly lead to physical dependency and eventually addiction.

Here are some of the long-term effects on the body and brain:

  • Heroin has a direct impact on the intellectual bandwidth of the brain as well as the physical injury caused by a lack of oxygen due to repeated respiratory arrest and lowered breath rate. Deterioration of the white matter of the brain due to heroin use may affect decision-making abilities, the ability to regulate behavior, and responses to stressful situations
  • Frequent injection of heroin coupled with white spread sharing of syringes increases the risk of contracting HIV, hepatitis B&C, and blood-borne infectious diseases such as infective endocarditis
  • Heart- Injection of heart lining and valves
  • Respiratory Pneumonia, nasal passage irritation, and nasal septum injury
  • Chronic vascular inflammation collapsed veins

Long-term use of heroin also causes severe medical consequences such as scarred veins, a bacterial infection of blood vessels, liver and kidney disease and lung complications.

Other complications of heroin may include life-threatening pulmonary edema, compartment syndrome, suppression of pain, and miosis.

Short-term effects on the brain

Heroin is an illicit opioid that has been misused by people for decades. In the 21st century, the use of heroin has caused a massive increase in both dependence and overdose deaths. The Route of Administration of heroin varies largely with intravenous root being the most common root including subcutaneous, intranasal, and intramuscular. Heroin gets metabolized in the central nervous system to monoacetylmorphine which acts as an agonist for the opioid receptors in the brain.

Heroin is approximately twice as potent as morphine and here are some underlying effects on the brain governed by the long-term use of heroin:

  • The feeling of a surge of pleasurable sensation. Repeated administration of increased doses will induce a state of physiological dependence and necessitate the continued administration of the drug.
  • Nausea
  • Heavy Limbs
  • Respiratory depression
  • Severe itching
  • Slowed heart rate and breathing rate

The withdrawal symptoms usually last for 48 to 72 hours of the last drug dose and can even subside after about a week. Some chronic addicts have persistent withdrawal symptoms for quite a few months and even years. Common withdrawal symptoms are listed below:

  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Drug craving
  • Diarrhea
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Cold Flashes

Respiratory depression is also one of the common effects of heroin and might be the most concerning leading to death and increasing numbers of misusers although it can be seen with other opioid medications such as morphine. The risk is high with heroin as it is more potent than any other opioid medication, heroin reliably causes reduced gastrointestinal motility which leads to constipation.

Heroin Overdose: Brain Damage

Heroin overdose occurs when a person takes a dose of a drug that is large enough to overwhelm the body’s ability to process and tolerate it. The rationale behind a heroin overdose is primarily due to the drug’s effects on the central nervous system and the body’s natural protective mechanisms.

Several factors contribute to the risk of heroin overdose:

Depressant Effect: Heroin is a potent central nervous system depressant and when it enters the body, it slows down vital functions, including respiration (breathing) and heart rate. In high doses, this can lead to respiratory depression, where the person’s breathing becomes slow, shallow, or even stops altogether.

Tolerance and Dose Escalation: Over time, as individuals use heroin, their bodies can develop tolerance to the drug’s effects. This means that they require increasingly larger doses to achieve the desired effects, which can lead to a higher risk of overdose if they miscalculate the dose.

Inconsistent Purity: The purity and potency of street heroin can vary significantly. Users may not be aware of the actual strength of the heroin they are using. A relatively small change in purity can result in a significantly different drug effect, making it challenging to estimate a safe dosage.

Combining with Other Substances: Many individuals who use heroin also use other substances, such as alcohol or benzodiazepines. Combining multiple depressant substances can increase the risk of overdose, as the effects of each drug can compound one another.

Lack of Knowledge: Users may lack accurate information about the strength and potential dangers of the heroin they are using. They might also underestimate the risks involved in their consumption.

Interrupted Tolerance: In some cases, people who have developed a high tolerance to heroin may stop using the drug for a period, such as during a period of incarceration or rehab. If they then return to drug use and attempt to use the same high dose as before, their tolerance may have significantly decreased, making them vulnerable to overdose.


Treatment for heroin addiction typically involves a combination of medical, psychological, and social interventions aimed at helping individuals overcome their dependence on the drug. The specific approach may vary based on the individual’s needs, the severity of the addiction, and available resources.

Here are some common components of treatment for heroin addiction:

Medical Detoxification: The first step in treatment is often medical detoxification. This process involves safely and gradually reducing the level of heroin in the individual’s system, managing withdrawal symptoms, and addressing any medical complications that may arise during withdrawal. Medications, such as methadone, buprenorphine, and clonidine, may be used to ease withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT): MAT involves the use of prescription medications, like methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone, in combination with counseling and behavioral therapy. These medications can help reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms, making it easier for individuals to focus on their recovery.

Behavioral Therapy: Various forms of behavioral therapy are often used to address the psychological aspects of addiction. This may include individual counseling, group therapy, and family therapy. Therapies such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Contingency Management are commonly employed to help individuals develop coping skills and address the underlying causes of their addiction.

Support Groups: Participation in support groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) or SMART Recovery, can provide a sense of community and ongoing support in recovery. These groups allow individuals to share their experiences and receive guidance from peers who understand addiction’s challenges.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment: Many individuals with heroin addiction also struggle with co-occurring mental health disorders. Dual-diagnosis treatment addresses both the addiction and the underlying mental health issues to ensure comprehensive care.

Counseling and Therapy: Individual and group counseling sessions can help individuals explore the root causes of their addiction, develop healthier coping mechanisms, and rebuild their lives.

Aftercare and Continuing Support: Recovery is an ongoing process. After completing a formal treatment program, individuals may benefit from ongoing support and aftercare services to help them maintain sobriety. This could include sober living homes, outpatient counseling, or additional support groups.

Holistic and Alternative Therapies: Some treatment programs may incorporate holistic or alternative therapies, such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, art therapy, or acupuncture, to complement traditional treatment methods.

Education and Relapse Prevention: Education about the risks of heroin use and strategies for relapse prevention is a critical aspect of treatment. Understanding triggers and learning how to manage them is essential for long-term recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

1. What color is heroin that’s mostly consumed?

According to the data, white powder, brown powder, and black-tar heroin are some of the commonly used heroin substances. However, the white or off-white powder stands out as it is readily available compared to other heroin substances based on its origin and purity.

2. Where can I learn more about the treatment of heroin addiction?

If you hope to achieve heroin sobriety, you must find a way to stop using the drug. But if you’re addicted, quitting has an important consequence. Namely, it can trigger withdrawal symptoms capable of sapping your will to break the cycle of addiction. Fortunately, there are ways to weaken the impact of withdrawal and increase your chances of reaching a heroin-free state. Medication is also a common element of heroin detox, in particular. The medication you receive may help you transition gradually from uncontrolled drug use to an initial state of sobriety. It may also help ease specific symptoms of heroin withdrawal. As an added bonus, your detox team can help you get ready to start active rehab once you’re heroin-free. The drug detox program by Relevance Recovery can help you surpass your withdrawal symptoms and help you finesse your way out.

3. How does heroin affect the brain?

Heroin profoundly impacts the brain by interacting with the central nervous system’s opioid receptors. This interaction induces a cascade of effects, including intense feelings of euphoria, relaxation, and pain relief. One of the key neurotransmitters involved in this process is dopamine, which is associated with pleasure and reward. Heroin use triggers a release of dopamine, reinforcing drug use and contributing to the intense pleasure experienced by users. Heroin use also leads to changes in the brain’s reward system and cognitive function, contributing to the cycle of addiction. Additionally, chronic heroin use can lead to mood disturbances, such as depression and anxiety. Understanding these neurological changes is crucial in addressing the challenges associated with heroin addiction and developing effective treatment strategies.


Heroin addiction is a powerful and complex adversary, but the human spirit is no less formidable. As we continue to research, educate, and advocate for those affected by addiction, we take one step closer to dismantling the stigma that often surrounds it. With open hearts and the understanding that recovery is possible, we can help those in need find their way back to the light, offering a path toward healing and a brighter, drug-free future.

Compared to the US population, New Jersey has unusually high exposure to opioid problems. Hence, to stay in touch with our clients and give them the best possible treatment, we have our Heroin Rehab Center in New Jersey. We are always available to help you out and guide you along this path of endless recovery.

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