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How Opiates Affect the Brain

Turning Point, Inc.

As the opioid epidemic continues to impact the lives of millions of people across the United States, researchers are working tirelessly to expand our understanding of what these drugs do to our brains in order to better combat their effects.

The Republic recently published an article digging into the physical effects opioids like OxyContin, Vicodin, and heroin have on people’s brains. When someone takes an opiate, it sets off a chemical reaction that causes dopamine, a chemical that causes an enjoyable reaction, to be released.

Many actions, from something as simple as taking the first sip of coffee in the morning or kissing someone you love, trigger a controlled release of this chemical. Opiates kick down the barriers and cause an overwhelming torrent of dopamine to flood the brain, causing intense pleasure while also altering pathways in the brain.

“All of the sudden, the brain sees the receptor gone away. There are no brakes anymore, it only accelerates,” Dr. Ruben Baler, a neuroscientist and health science administrator for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said to The Republic."

These changes to the brain occur so quickly that the person who used the drug could become dependent after just one use, which has led medical professionals to better understand that addiction is a biological issue and not a personal or moral failure.

“The parts of the brain that help us consider cause and effect come offline in addiction,” Dr. Joseph Niezer, a psychiatrist with Franciscan Health Network Psychiatric Specialists in Indianapolis, said in an interview with The Republic. “There are identifiable changes in the brain of someone dealing with addiction, the same way there are changes with someone who had Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease.”

The American Society of Addiction Medicine classifies addiction as a chronic, relapsing type of brain disease, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 2.6 million people in the United States suffer from some type of substance use disorder involving opioids.

One thing researchers are working to better understand is why some people can become addicted to a single use, while others can repeatedly use without becoming addicted. According to Dr. Baler, a key reason is that some people are genetically predisposed to be more susceptible to addiction.

“Just talking about one gene, and there are thousands of genes that we can talk about that can impact it,” he said. “Individually, these gene differences are not huge. But if you add them up, you are building up personalities that are more likely to engage in drug abuse, and once they’re exposed to that, they’re more likely to repeat the experience over and over again.”

People who take prescription opioids can face additional issues as their bodies become more tolerant to the drugs. They may need to take increased doses in order to continue managing their chronic pain, which can increase the risk of becoming addicted while also making it more difficult to stop taking the drugs once their treatment is finished.

Overcoming your addiction can be an incredibly difficult process, and our team here at Turning Point are ready to provide you with the support you need every step of the way. Give us a call at 973.380.0905 today to learn more about the services we provide, or end us your information through our online form to fill us in on the details of your situation.

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