Using heroin can damage many of your organs and body systems, including the brain. Long-term opioid use, including heroin addiction, can cause physical changes to multiple regions of the brain. Early on in the heroin use process, some of the brain injury or damage can be temporary, but many of the changes are permanent. Even the temporary harm can become permanent with repeated use of opiates like heroin.
Heroin Reshapes the Brain
The brain scans of heroin addicts in their twenties can resemble scans of elderly patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Injecting heroin triples the risk of this type of brain reshaping as compared to people who do not use opiates.
Changes to the Hippocampus
The hippocampus region of your brain creates new brain cells to replace the ones that deteriorate and die off as a normal, everyday process of life. Heroin addiction reshapes the brain and can cause observable changes in the structure of the hippocampus. Heroin addicts develop lesions in the hippocampus. These injuries prevent the hippocampus from performing its functions, like making new brain cells. Without replacement brain cells, your entire brain could deteriorate.
The hippocampus also plays a role in memory. As a result, some opiate addicts develop a bizarre form of amnesia. People who have anterograde amnesia are unable to form new memories. The MRIs of these patients look strikingly different than imaging studies of people who do not use opiates.
The brain has two seahorse-shaped structures that make up the hippocampus region. In the MRI studies on the brains of those who are addicted to heroin, the entire hippocampus will “light up” and appear big and bright. Undamaged brain tissue appears dark on MRI scans.
What Heroin Does to the Brain’s Grey Matter
The grey matter of the brain controls our central nervous system. Healthy grey matter allows you to:
- Think and reason
- Make sense of the world around you
- Control how your body moves
If the grey matter of your brain takes damage from heroin or some other cause, you can experience weakness or even paralysis. You can also present symptoms like numbness and tingling. You can lose the ability to make sense of or correctly interpret what is going on around you.
Alterations to the Brain’s White Matter
Heroin addiction reshapes the brain by damaging the white matter as well as other regions of the brain. Think of the white matter of your brain as a cell phone signal or Wi-Fi connection. If those receptors become impaired, you can lose the ability to communicate with others. When white matter gets damaged, the different regions of the brain cannot send signals to each other and the brain stops working properly.
White matter damage from heroin use can cause toxic leukoencephalopathy. There is no treatment or cure for this debilitating disease. People with this condition can have slurred speech, dementia, and be unable to maintain attention.
Why Heroin Addicts Have Hallucinations
The grey matter of the brain controls sensory processing in addition to the central nervous system functions covered above. Our sensory organs send information to the brain for the grey matter to process. When the grey matter works correctly, we can react to these stimuli quickly and appropriately (such as by pulling our hands out of scalding water, for example).
Because opiates damage the grey matter, a heroin addict might misinterpret sensory information and have delusions or hallucinations as a result. He or she might see, hear, or feel things that are not there. This can have very real consequences as the victim attempts to protect themselves from perceived but imaginary threats.
Brain Lesions from Heroin and Severe Mental Disturbances
Research on intravenous (IV) heroin addicts showed physical brain changes in nearly 40 percent of the people studied. These brain alterations were significant enough to be the probable cause of the severe mental disturbances these people experienced. Most of the people with the brain abnormalities had lesions caused by a lack of oxygen, which is a kind of brain damage that can occur during a heroin overdose.
How Quickly Heroin Can Reshape the Brain
Brain disintegration starts early on in the path of heroin abuse. The brain quickly deteriorates into a spongy state. This physical alteration of the brain can cause a person to have spastic attacks and permanent hand tremors.
Compounding the damage that the drug does to the brain, heroin users often experience sleep apnea. People with this condition stop breathing repeatedly when he or she is asleep. Some people with apnea stop breathing hundreds of times a night. When a person stops breathing, the brain does not get the oxygen it needs. More lesions form, accelerating brain deterioration.
Get the Help You Need
Heroin addiction can reshape the brain in multiple ways, and all are harmful. Most of the alterations that heroin causes to the brain are permanent and irreversible. If a loved one is suffering from brain damage or other impacts stemming from heroin addiction, we may be able to help.