This Is Your Opioid-Affected Brain (Part 1)

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America's now-iconic series of public service announcements utilizing the famed "This is your brain on drugs" tag line debuted in the late 1980s. The advertisements' primary concept was that an egg represented your brain, and a hot frying pan represents drugs. The egg is cracked into the frying pan by someone. It fries, as the name implies. "Do you have any questions?" a man inquires.

Yes. There are a lot of them, especially considering how much the addiction environment has altered in the last two decades. Still, it was a decent start, and the message's core remains true: drugs, simply put, change your brain. Obviously, it's a little more difficult than the advertisements suggested, and as the opioid epidemic spreads and treatment options change, it's more vital than ever to grasp what opioids do to our brains–and the long-term consequences of opioid usage.

It turns out it's all about neurotransmitters, which is quite useful unless you fell asleep in science class and have no idea what one is. A neurotransmitter is just a molecule that regulates brain transmission. Your brain releases neurotransmitters from one nerve cell and transmits them to another, similar to a telephone game in which the message remains the same. Because nerve cells connect with one another and share information, neurotransmitters are required for all of our basic processes.

In fact, you're probably familiar with two of our neurotransmitters' names: serotonin and dopamine. The first aids in the regulation of vital functions such as mood, sleep, and appetite. That's why many antidepressants are made to boost our serotonin levels. Dopamine is also linked to our thoughts and feelings, as well as the pleasure and reward centers of our brain.

We also have neurotransmitters called endogenous opioids in our systems, which are opioids that our bodies create on their own. Endorphins are undoubtedly something you've heard of, especially in relation to exercise or the "runner's high." (Fun fact: the term "endorphins" is derived from the term "endogenous morphine.")

These neurotransmitters are our bodies' natural stress and pain relievers, but we don't create enough of them to keep us from experiencing severe or chronic pain or being stressed out. This is where the use of opioids comes into play. Opioids work in a similar way to naturally occurring neurotransmitters, but in considerably bigger doses. They bind to your brain's natural opioid receptors and start wreaking havoc. The reward and pleasure centers of the brain are flooded with opioids, telling our brains to block pain, reduce stress, and calm us down.

Adding opioids to our system, whether in the form of heroin, morphine, or codeine, changes our brain chemistry over time. "Repeated use of opiates generates modifications in neurotransmitter and neuropeptide systems that govern incentive–motivation and stress–responsiveness," according to the Journal of Neuroscience. "A growing body of research suggests that dysregulation of these systems is at the root of opiate and other addictions' compulsive drug use and loss of control." Is that clear?

Here's the final line, in case that wasn't clear: persistent opioid use affects our brains at the cellular level. Our brains literally respond differently to stress and pain once they have been transformed. More is required. Our natural opioids are insufficient. Long-term opiate usage also changes the way our brains react to triggers chemically. Being in the presence of people, places, and/or objects linked with our drug use can trigger us to use. So being triggered when we visit old haunts isn't due to a lack of willpower or character flaws–due it's to a physical change in our brains as a result of long-term opioid use.

It's all a bit scary, but the good news is that we have the power to heal our brains, just as opioids have changed ours. That's what we'll look at next.

This Is Your Opioid-Affected Brain (Part 1)
This Is Your Opioid-Affected Brain (Part 1)

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