How Opioids Reprogram the Brain

The chemical properties of narcotics, along with chemical changes that occur in the brain and body when under the influence, is what leads to physical and psychological addiction. The cravings that lead the user to ingest more of these substances leads to long-term usage, while a persistent exposure to opioids in turn makes addiction all the more insidious, and recovery all the more difficult.

There have been many studies that have revealed outcomes that suggest that continued exposure to opioids contributes to long-term changes to the user’s brain. These changes are on the “epigenetic” level, which are environmental influences onto one’s genetic activity and expression. The changes that occur reprogram the brain in a permanent way. This reprogramming includes the overwhelming yearning for the user to continue to ingest these opioids. To be clear, this is not an explanation of the process of addiction, but rather an amplification of the cravings that already take place chemically when one uses narcotics.

Findings regarding this phenomenon have been released in a study recently published in Biological Psychiatry. Yasmin Hurd, director of the Center for Addictive Disorders at Mount Sinai, and her team have isolated the mechanism that leads to this epigenetic response. Hurd’s research, as well as numerous other studies, all demonstrate that it is not the initial jolt of the first taste of the drug that changes the brain, but the course of repeated use over time that does the indelible damage.

These outcomes add to the evidence toward an increasingly accepted acknowledgement in the medical community to begin to consider addiction as a chronic illness, one that must be managed throughout one’s lifetime like diabetes or cancer. They also point to the importance of medication-assisted treatment, which Beacon promotes to decrease opioid-related death and illicit drug use, and to improve overall health for members.

Learn more about how drug use changes the brain, and how this contributes to relapse.