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4 Effects of Opioids on the Brain

Opioids are powerful medications that can relieve severe pain. They work by making changes in the brain and central nervous system. Some of these changes can have long-lasting effects on the brain.

Fortunately, treatment from Milestones Wellness Centers can help reverse some of these changes to the brain.

Psychological Effects of Opioids

The brain and body communicate through the nervous system. The brain sends messages down the spinal cord and into nerves, which carry the messages to the rest of the body. The body can also send messages back through the nervous system to the brain.

Certain molecules in opioids bind to receptors in the brain, somewhat like a boat pulling into a dock on the shore of a lake or river. The action of the opioids binding to the receptors causes a chemical reaction that affects nerve cells, also known as neurons. The chemical reaction changes the way the brain perceives pain – the chemical reaction can also trigger feelings of pleasure.

Rise and fall of dopamine

When opioids bind to receptors, they release a neurotransmitter, which is a type of chemical messenger that carries messages from one neuron to the next. One of these neurotransmitters is dopamine, which carries messages of pleasure. The binding of opioids to receptors causes the brain to produce an excessive amount of dopamine – this chemical reaction is why opioids feel so rewarding and pleasurable.

The human brain produces its own dopamine, as the neurotransmitter helps the nerve cells pass messages back and forth. The brain also releases dopamine when it is expecting a reward, such as food, sex, shopping, or just about anything else that someone might enjoy. The human brain does not produce as much dopamine naturally as it does with opioids, so opioids create a much stronger sense of pleasure and reward.

The brain naturally tries to repeat this process that triggers the massive reward of opioids, so it tries to seek out the source of dopamine. The individual experiences the brain’s search for dopamine as opioid cravings that drive the person to take even more opioids. Continuing use of opioids tricks the brain into thinking it does not need to produce its own dopamine as its primary source of pleasure, so the brain stops producing dopamine and relies on opioids instead.

When an individual’s brain stops producing dopamine, they may experience:

  • Depression
  • Poor concentration
  • Lack of motivation
  • An inability to feel pleasure
  • Shaking hands and other tremors
  • Difficulty managing daily tasks
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Increase sensitivity to pain

Using opioids for a long time can cause increased sensitivity to pain, a condition known as hyperalgesia. Opioids activate receptors that block messages of pain from reaching the brain. The body tries to overcome these blockages by activating other pain signals; this causes the brain to think that other types of non-painful stimuli, such as a light touch or a pinprick, are much more painful than they really are.

Damage to the brain’s frontal lobe

Located in the frontmost part of the skull, the frontal lobe of the brain is responsible for voluntary movement of the body, language, memory, emotions, social interaction, impulse control, and problem-solving. Researchers are still working to understand exactly how opioids affect the frontal lobe, but they do know that chronic use of opioids can lead to:

  • Loss of movement
  • Memory problems
  • Poor judgment
  • Speech and language difficulty
  • Poor concentration
  • Poor planning and problem-solving skills

Poor impulse control

Chronic use of opioids can affect the areas of the brain associated with impulse control, which causes someone to have trouble controlling their emotions or behaviors. Disrupting the brain’s impulse control response can make it incredibly difficult to resist opioid cravings. Poor impulse control caused by opioid use can also lead to aggression that negatively affects the individual’s relationships at home, work, or school.

Treatment from Milestones can Help

Fortunately, the brain is capable of changing. If you or someone you love has been misusing opioids, treatment from Milestones Wellness Centers can help. Abnormal activity and signs of opioid abuse in some parts of the brain show signs of recovery within the first few weeks of quitting opioids. Treatment helps change the brain in ways that reduce drug cravings, impulse control, pain sensitivity, and other signs of chronic opioid abuse.

For more information on how opioids affect, the brain – and for information on treatment for opioid abuse – contact Milestones Wellness Centers.

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