What Do Opiates do to the Brain?

Opioids are a highly addictive class of drugs that cause major damage to the brain. Their high potential for abuse comes from their pain relieving and euphorigenic properties. However, tolerance quickly develops when one is abusing opioids, and more and more of the drug must be taken to achieve the same effects. Eventually, a user must take the drug to avoid painful withdrawal symptoms that develop with increased tolerance.
Opioids work by attaching to opioid receptors in the brain and body. Once opioid receptors are activated, the brain releases a surge of pleasure chemicals known as dopamine, giving the user a feeling of euphoria. The effects, however, are short-lived, causing a user to continuously take the drug to achieve the same feeling of the initial euphoric “rush.” According to a 2017 article for PBS, How a Brain Gets Hooked on Opioids, “Opioid addiction becomes entrenched after a person’s neurons adapt to the drugs. The GABAergic neurons and other nerves in the brain still want to send messages, so they begin to adjust. They produce three to four times more cyclic AMP, a compound that primes the neuron to fire electric pulses.” This adjustment causes tolerance and dependence. Because the brain has adjusted to the intake of the drug, the opposite effects occur when the drug is not taken. Eventually, “the pendulum swings back. Now, rather than causing constipation and slowing respiration, the brain stem triggers diarrhea and elevates blood pressure. Instead of triggering happiness, the nucleus accumbens and amygdala reinforce feelings of dysphoria and anxiety. All of this negativity feeds into the prefrontal cortex, further pushing a desire for opioids.” The drive to avoid the feelings of withdrawal and achieve the state of euphoria provided by the drug reinforce an individual’s compulsion to abuse opioids. The reward center of our brain is activated, and eventually we come to rely on opiates for pleasure rather than natural and healthy dopamine producing activities. Fortunately, the brain is able to heal and recover after complete drug cessation and detoxification of the body.

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