Heroin Addiction Might Damage Brain DNA

Startling New Findings on Heroin’s Impact on the Brain

At a recent Society for Neuroscience meeting, a team of researchers led by Mount Sinai Hospital’s Dr. Yasmin Hurd presented study findings indicating that extended use of heroin warps the brain at a fundamental level.[1]

In a post-mortem study of the brains of heroin abusers, the researchers determined that the longer heroin is used, the more changes are made to the very shape and form of the DNA in the areas of the brain associated with drug addiction. The DNA in these areas becomes overactive and more likely to mutate.

The study also indicated that this alteration to the structure of a user’s DNA is inversely related to heroin overdoses, implying that the mechanisms of overdose are different from the mechanisms involved in heroin addiction. This research is still ongoing, and the study has yet to be fully published, but the researchers are hopeful that their work will lead to a way to undo the damage that heroin does to addict’s brains.

Addiction Alters Brain Chemistry

When scientists and doctors began studying the nature of addiction in the early 1900s, it was believed that people who were addicted to drugs and alcohol were morally flawed or lacking willpower. This ill-conceived view point has begun to change with new research and medical studies.

The human brain begins to function differently upon prolonged use and abuse of drugs – the brain learns to function normally in the presence of those drugs. When an individual ceases use of drugs, the brain does not immediately return to normal. Researchers have found that addicts who have ceased using drugs for 12 months still have a brain that looks and functions differently than a normal person’s.[2]

Whenever an individual does something that satisfies a need or fulfills a desire, dopamine is released in the brain, producing the feeling of pleasure. The brain then records this experience as something it would like to try again. Generally speaking, actions that release dopamine (exercise, sex, eating good food, etc.) take some time to accomplish before receiving the reward. Using addictive drugs acts as a shortcut to this process. Heroin use floods the brain with dopamine; continued abuse overwhelms the brain’s receptors, causing a shutdown and making it more difficult to experience pleasure.[3]

Over time, the brain develops a dependence on a steady supply of heroin to produce dopamine. The brain also shows adaptation and a change in circuitry. Once the drug is removed, the neurotransmitters which had been previously shutdown or inhibited by heroin abuse begin pumping out dopamine again, creating an imbalance of chemicals. This imbalance interacts with the nervous system to create opiate withdrawal symptoms, such as muscle spasms, nausea, cramps and fever.[4]

Addiction is Not a Choice

The disease of addiction is described as something that lies in wait, hidden in the brain and looking for the perfect moment to strike; like a deadly predator hiding in the grass and stalking its prey.One of the biggest changes in the way addiction is viewed in the U.S. and around the world is the widespread acknowledgment that addiction is not a matter of choice. While the initial decision to use an illicit or addictive substance does begin with a choice, subsequent use, abuse, dependency and addiction are often governed by several factors which are not under the control of the user:[5]

  • Family History: Many people are genetically predisposed to being more vulnerable to addiction than others. While some people can casually use drugs or alcohol without developing an addiction, a large percentage of individuals cannot.
  • Mental Health: A person who is suffering from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or another psychological condition is much more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol and more likely to develop dependencies on them.
  • Trauma: People experience and witness things that many of us could not even imagine. These events often follow people around in dreams, flashbacks and many other situations, leaving some feeling helpless. It’s not uncommon for individuals struggling with trauma from war, rape, severe accidents, sudden-death in the family or countless other situations to seek to self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol.
  • Quality of Life: Matters such as where a person lives, what they eat, how active their lifestyle is, their financial status and others are often strong indicators of a person’s propensity to become addicted.

No one has ever actively decided that they wanted to be an addict. Drug and alcohol use generally begin casually and escalate over time due to tolerance, environment and the factors listed above.

The disease of addiction is described as something that lies in wait, hidden in the brain and looking for the perfect moment to strike; like a deadly predator hiding in the grass and stalking its prey. That first sip of alcohol, snort of cocaine or injection or heroin triggers the addiction, making it more and more difficult to stop with each use.

Psychological Counseling is Crucial to Recovery

Addiction is a disease that grips the mind and body. Especially with heroin and other opiates, detox alone only addresses the physiological impact of addiction, leaving recovering addicts highly prone to a quick relapse. While detoxification is highly important, its effects will be short-lived without also including psychological therapy.

Addicts need to be made aware of preexisting conditions which have made them more susceptible to substance abuse and addiction; and also need to understand the thoughts, actions, environments and other factors which frequently trigger substance abuse.

By understanding the things that are happening inside their minds before, during and after substance abuse, addicts are better able to make long-term changes to their lifestyles that will promote long-term sobriety.

Proven Leaders in Addiction Care

Since opening in 1997, Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches has been redefining the standards of high quality and effective drug addiction treatment. Our staff of mental health experts, medical professionals and addiction therapists have a full mastery of the impact that drug abuse has on the brain. We have developed several techniques and strategies to help patients overcome their addictions and reclaim their lives.

If you or someone you love is struggling with drug addiction, the problem will only worsen without treatment. Take a stand and take the first steps in defeating addiction and getting the help you need by calling one of our representatives today.