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How Does Heroin Affect the Brain?

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

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All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Heroin is a powerful illicit opioid that can lead to addiction quickly. Once someone is addicted to heroin, their chances of experiencing life-threatening overdoses increase substantially. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), about 1 million people reported using heroin in 2021.[1]

Like all addictive substances, heroin can have devastating and lasting effects on every major organ system in your body. One of the areas of the body that heroin is known to adversely affect is the brain. Abusing this substance long-term can cause changes to your brain and even significant brain damage.

If you or a loved one suffers from a heroin addiction, knowing how the substance can affect your brain might motivate you to seek the help you need.

The Effects of Heroin

When you abuse heroin, how quickly the effects begin will depend on how you consume it. For example, injecting the drug intravenously will cause a faster onset of effects than snorting or smoking it.

Typically, the initial rush of euphoria caused by heroin only lasts a few minutes, while the drowsy high effects will last for a couple of hours. Short-term effects of heroin include:[2]

  • Flushing of the skin
  • A heavy feeling in the extremities
  • Respiratory depression
  • Dry mouth
  • Loss of appetite
  • Constipation
  • Severe itchiness
  • Mood swings

Once someone abuses heroin for a while, they will begin to experience additional effects. The long-term effects of heroin may include:[3]

  • Collapse veins or track marks from IV drug use
  • The development of tolerance, dependence, and addiction
  • Lung infections like pneumonia or tuberculosis
  • Stoke
  • Overdose
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Viral infections like HIV from sharing needles

In addition, long-term heroin abuse can cause changes in the brain, such as reduced cognitive function and poor memory.

What Does Heroin Do to the Brain?

Your brain contains opioid receptors that naturally release chemicals when you experience pain. When you abuse an opioid drug like heroin, your receptors release large amounts of chemicals at once.[4] As a result, you experience a powerful high when you abuse heroin.

Over time, repeatedly abusing heroin will cause your brain to rely on the substance. Your opioid receptors become rewired to only fire off when heroin is used, meaning your body’s natural defenses against pain become ineffective.

In addition to rendering your opioid receptors useless, heroin causes changes in the reward and pleasure systems in your brain. Chemicals like dopamine that cause you feelings of happiness will no longer be released unless you use heroin, which is why the substance is so addictive.[4]

Lastly, because your brain begins to rely on heroin to function normally, you will develop withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop taking the substance. These withdrawal symptoms can be painful, unbearable, and even dangerous without medical assistance. This is why you should always attend a drug rehab program when you suffer from an opioid use disorder.

Does Heroin Abuse Cause Brain Damage?

Long-term heroin use can cause brain damage in a few different ways. First, addiction can be related to brain damage, as substance abuse causes the reward and pleasure system of your brain to no longer function properly.

Next, opioid receptors in your brain control breathing. When you are high on heroin, your breathing becomes depressed. As a result, your body will not receive the amount of oxygen it needs, making you more susceptible to organ and brain damage.

Lastly, long-term heroin use has been linked to a type of brain damage that is similar to Alzheimer’s disease. This occurs because heroin causes a build-up of proteins and inflammation in your brain, inducing a form of dementia.[5]

Can Brain Damage From Heroin Be Treated?

The best way to treat any form of brain damage you have developed from heroin abuse is to attend detox and inpatient rehab. By eliminating heroin from your system during detox, your body can begin to return to a state of normal functioning. Whatever damages that do not heal from simply detoxing can be treated medically during residential rehab while you learn to maintain long-term sobriety.

Professional treatment is extremely vital to your safety and success, as withdrawal symptoms can be impossible to overcome on your own. As soon as the symptoms become severe, you will be tempted to relapse. Relapsing on heroin after a period of abstinence can cause you to experience a life-threatening overdose.

With that being said, you should never attempt to detox alone. Heroin detox centers can provide you with the tools, medications, and support you need to be successful. After you complete detox, you can transition into an inpatient rehab center where you will learn to cope with your emotions and life without drugs or alcohol.

Finding Help for Heroin Abuse and Addiction

If you or a loved one suffers from heroin addiction, it’s time to seek help. Because long-term heroin abuse can lead to organ and brain damage, receiving treatment is of the utmost importance. Thankfully, programs like the South Carolina Addiction Treatment Center can provide you with the tools and support you need to achieve lifelong sobriety.

To learn more about our heroin addiction treatment center, contact us today.


  1. The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA): What is the scope of heroin use in the United States, Retrieved September 2023 From
  2. The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA): What are the immediate (short-term) effects of heroin use, Retrieved September 2023 From
  3. The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA): What are the long-term effects of heroin use, Retrieved September 2023 From
  4. The National Library of Medicine (NLM): The Neurobiology of Opioid Dependence: Implications for Treatment, Retrieved September 2023 From
  5. The National Library of Medicine (NLM): Heroin abuse exaggerates age-related deposition of hyperphosphorylated tau and p62-positive inclusions, Retrieved September 2023 From