Opioid addiction and its effect on the brain

Individuals who abuse opioids run many risks, and one of them is addiction. However, the list does not end there. In addition to addiction, individuals are also at a risk for various physical and mental disorders.

The brain does not differentiate between prescription opioids like OxyContin and illicit drugs like heroin. Their effect on the brain is the same: They bind to the brain’s opioid receptors, dulling pain and creating a euphoric sensation. The more an individual uses the drugs, the more he or she craves them to replicate that initial high. The brain’s pleasure center yearns for an increased amount of the drug.

From RX to heroin

A majority of heroin users today usually started with prescription pain medicines to get high. As the prescription drugs became scarce, their street value skyrocketed, pushing the users into the arms of heroin dealers. One OxyContin pill can fetch up to $80 in Los Angeles, New York and other large cities, while bags of heroin can go for as little as $20.

According to David Wilkinson, M.D., former medical director at the Foundry Treatment Center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, today’s heroin is not pure, as it might be mixed with highly potent substances like fentanyl and carfentanil. Speaking about heroin, Wilkinson said, “Because it is often mixed with these sinister and hard-to-regulate narcotics, even microscopic amounts can be lethal and users who are not drug-dependent can die from just one use.”

Opioids depress central nervous system

Most people who fatally overdose on opioids die due to halted breathing. Opioids depress the central nervous system (CNS), which regulates respiration. Wilkinson said that individuals who survive, either through CPR or naloxone dose, still run the risk of brain damage. “When you aren’t getting adequate oxygen, your brain cells die, which can severely interfere with who you are and what you are able to do,” he added. The results can vary from impaired speech and cognition to a permanent vegetative state.

Opioid abuse can trigger mental disorders

John F. Kelly, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, said opioid abuse can create some mental disorder and trigger others. An epigenetic mental disorder can lay dormant throughout a person’s life. But certain triggers, including opioids, can bring these disorders to the fore. “You may have a susceptibility to a psychological illness that only manifests upon exposure to certain triggers, such as a drug,” he said.

Addiction by numbers

According to the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):

  • 1.3 million U.S. adolescents (12 to 17 years) had a substance abuse disorder in 2014
  • That year, individuals aged 18 to 22 years had the highest rate of illicit drug use at 22.7 percent
  • The next highest rate was among individuals aged 21 to 25 years at 21.5 percent

Seeking treatment

White River Academy (WRA) is a residential treatment facility and boarding school located near the Great Basin in Delta, Utah. Its student body comprises young men ages 12 to 17 years. Every student who comes to WRA is dealing with one or more behavioral health issues. With respect to addiction, WRA is one of the most successful addiction treatment modalities is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). An individual who is addicted typically is besieged by negative thoughts which  plays over and over in the head. CBT helps rewire the brain, turning negative thoughts into positive or neutral statements. With CBT, patients can escape the vicious cycle of using and self-recrimination. Contact our 24/7 helpline to learn more about our substance abuse treatment programs. Financial aid for tuition fees is available on a per-case basis.

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