How Opioids Affect the Brain

Research-based Brain Science

How does Opioid use Affect the Brain?

Despite the medical advantages of opioids, individuals taking opioids medically or recreationally should know that misusing these drugs can affect the brain. Here’s how. Read More.

Opioids are powerful drugs that help relieve pain. Although they’re highly effective, using opioids can have some adverse effects. This is especially true if opioids are misused. If you take opioids without a prescription, consume higher doses than prescribed, or take the medication more often than instructed, you can experience drowsiness, nausea, dizziness, mental fog, constipation, and slowed breathing. Misusing opioids also affects the brain, which can negatively affect your entire well-being.

Opioids are a group of drugs derived from the opium poppy plant. These drugs can take the form of prescription medications, also referred to as “painkillers,” or illicit drugs, also known as “street drugs.” All opioids, whether they’re used for medical purposes or not, decrease the amount of pain signals the body sends to the brain. This is how opioids relieve pain.

Prescription opioids can help ease different types of discomfort. These afflictions can include minor bruises and tears, dental procedures, surgery-related pain, traumatic sports wounds, or accident-related injuries. Doctors also typically prescribe opioids to help alleviate cancer pain.

Some of the most commonly prescribed opioid medications include:

  • Oxycodone, which is found in Oxycontin and Percocet. Thanks to oxycodone’s high potency, the painkiller is one of the most commonly abused prescription drugs in the country.
  • Hydrocodone, which is found in Vicodin. Doctors mostly prescribe hydrocodone to treat short-term pain following dental surgery or for injury-related pain. Regular use of hydrocodone can be habit-forming.
  • Codeine which is found in Tylenol 3. Codeine typically comes in a tablet form and is the main ingredient in many prescription-grade cough suppressants.
  • Morphine is a Schedule II drug used to treat pain after major surgeries, cancer-related pain, and shortness of breath that can occur near the end of an individual’s life.
  • Methadone is a synthetic opioid that’s used to help treat individuals recovering from opioid addiction. When used as prescribed, methadone can effectively help individuals recover from opioid abuse, but the drug can lead to addiction when misused.
  • Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. Doctors typically use fentanyl to relieve severe or breakthrough pain during or after surgery or cancer treatment, but the drug is also often used for recreational purposes. Prescription fentanyl can be found in medicines such as Duragesic, Subys, Ionys, and Abstral. When used recreationally, fentanyl is often referred to as “Sublime” and “China White.”

Heroin is the only illicit opioid. The drug, which also relieves pain, causes an intense but temporary euphoric high. Unlike prescription opioids, heroin has no approved medical use. Abusing the drug can lead to addiction, overdose, and organ damage.

Despite their differences, all opioids affect the brain the same way.

Opioids bind to opioid receptors in the brain. When opioids attach to these receptors, the interaction triggers a series of chemical changes between neurons that lead to simultaneous pleasure and pain relief.

The human body has three kinds of opioid receptors: mu, delta, and kappa. Mu opioid receptors are linked to mood, pain, and reward. Opioids that activate mu receptors can cause pain relief, mood changes, dependence, and respiratory changes. Delta receptors deal with mood. Opioids that block delta receptors can cause anxiety and depression. Kappa receptors affect mood and reward responses. When opioids activate kappa receptors, they can cause pain relief, dysphoria, and increased urination.

The human body naturally produces endogenous opioids which function like hormones and activate opioid receptors in the brain. For example, endorphins are endogenous opioids. When endorphins interact with opioid receptors in the brain, you feel euphoric, elated, and free of pain. When opioid medication and heroin interact with opioid receptors, they can also lead to euphoria and feelings of intense pleasure. But opioid drugs work differently than endogenous opioids like endorphins. Unlike the opioids your body naturally produces, opioid drugs can have adverse side effects and can negatively affect the brain.

Opioids Stop the Brain from Producing Dopamine on Its Own

When opioids bind to opioid receptors that regulate reward, they encourage the brain to produce an excessive amount of dopamine. Dopamine relieves pain and increases pleasure. The brain naturally seeks to repeat processes that trigger this reward. In addition, dopamine plays an important role in motivation and learning. Because of this, the brain continues to seek out the source of dopamine, triggering opioid cravings. Continued opioid use allows the brain to begin to rely on opioid-induced dopamine as a primary source of pleasure. When this happens, the brain is tricked into believing it doesn’t need to produce dopamine on its own.

When the brain stops producing dopamine, you can experience:

  • Depression
  • Lack of motivation
  • Poor concentration
  • Shaking hands and other tremors
  • An inability to feel pleasure
  • Symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Difficulty managing daily tasks

Using opioids for a long period of time can cause opioid-induced hyperalgesia (OIH), or increased sensitivity to pain. Typically, normal stimulation such as a light touch or prick with a needle isn’t very painful, but opioids make the brain more sensitive to pain. Opioid drugs activate receptors that block pain signals from reaching the brain. When this happens, the body tries to overcome these blocked signals by activating other pain signals, which can lead to hypersensitization.

The brain’s frontal lobe plays an important role in planning, attention, memory, and executive functioning. Chronic opioid use can impair this part of the brain. Even though doctors don’t fully understand how opioids damage the frontal lobe, using the drug for a long period of time can lead to:

  • Memory problems
  • Loss of movement
  • Poor judgment
  • An inability to concentrate
  • Speech and language difficulty
  • Poor planning and problem-solving skills

In addition to many other tasks, the brain helps regulate impulse control. Abusing opioids disrupts brain circuits involved in impulse control. When this happens, resisting opioid cravings becomes incredibly challenging. In addition to that, not being able to control impulses can lead to aggression that negatively affects interpersonal relationships at work, home, or school.

Misusing opioids can negatively affect the brain. Fortunately, the brain is neuroplastic and capable of changing. Our treatment programs can help you regain control of your life and restore the health of your brain. Having a healthy brain is the gateway to a healthy, thriving life.

Let us help you get there. Contact us today to learn more.

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