5 Critical Facts about Opiates and the Brain

Most people are familiar with opiates as they are prescribed for a variety of pain symptoms, particularly post-surgery.  Opiates like hydrocodone and oxycodone are commonly used to treat many painful conditions.  Other opiates, like heroin and morphine, are often used illicitly, without a doctor’s prescription.  With all drugs derived from the poppy plant, use causes specific changes to occur in the brain, making cessation from using particularly difficult once a habit has been formed.

For help finding an opiate addiction treatment program call 888-414-2380 (Who Answers?) .

Hedonic Effects and Drug Liking

In 2002, Kosten and George released a study outlining specifically how opiates affect the reward centers in the brain.  Because of the manner in which these power chemicals allow for the release of the “feel-good chemical”, dopamine, in the brain, stopping opiate use can be especially difficult.  Opiates bind to proteins in the brain stimulating the reward center.

People using opiates experience the same euphoria experienced while eating or having sex.  This leads to “drug liking”, which makes a user want more and more of the drugs.

Avoiding Withdrawal

Facts about Opiates

Withdrawal symptoms fuel ongoing opiate abuse.

Once a habit of opioid abuse is formed, quitting is extremely difficult.  Addicts experience serious withdrawal symptoms when drug use stops.  Persons attempting to quit opiates may experience the following adverse withdrawal symptoms:

  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Flu-like symptoms

Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA)

The reward center of the brain can be narrowed down to one specific center called the ventral tegmental area (VTA).  Located in the center of the brain, the VTA is responsible for the production of dopamine, the chemical controlling pleasure sensations like food satiation and orgasm.  Opiates directly stimulate this area of the brain, heightening sensations of pleasure and euphoria.

If opiates are used to combat pain, as prescribed in surgery, they can be a powerful aid in healing.  However, if abused and overused, opiates can lead to a never ending cycle of requiring more and more to achieve the desired euphoric effects.

Opioid Receptors

Opiates trigger different receptors in the brain:  µ, ō, and ĸ. These receptors stimulate the pleasure center of the brain and the production of dopamine, while blocking pain messages.  This is a dangerous combination for anyone.

The reward of taking opiates is consistently present and reinforce ongoing use.  Further, pain responses in the brain can become skewed with messages misfiring.  Often, people taking opiates feel sensations of physical and psychic pain, leading to self-medication and more opiate use.

Lasting Effects in Cognitive Function

For those who become addicted to opiates via overuse of prescription medication or recreational use that has gone awry, quitting can be extremely difficult without professional help.  The cycle of using, production of feel-good chemicals in the brain’s reward center, and the over-firing of pain responses in the brain leads to using more and more drugs.

Opiates are specifically dangerous because of the lasting changes that are made in the brain.  With long-term abuse, the manner in which the brain processes pain and pleasure is changed.  Memory, problem-solving and reasoning may also be impacted, but some functioning can be restored upon embarking on recovery.  Seeking help from qualified addiction specialists is an addict’s best chance at getting off the terrible merry-go-round of opiate addiction.

10 Important Prescription Opiate Statistics


DeVries, T. & Shippenberg, T. (2002). Neural systems underlying opiate addiction.  Journal of Neuroscience. 22(9): 3321-3325. Retrieved on March 19, 2017 from:  http://www.jneurosci.org/content/22/9/3321

Harvard Mental Health (2004). The addicted brain.  Harvard Health Publications. Retrieved on March 19, 2017 from:  http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/the_addicted_brain

Kosten, T. & George, T. (2002).  The neurobiology of opioid dependence:  Implications for treatment. Addiction Science and Clinical Practice. 1(1):  13-20.  Retrieved on March 19, 2017 from:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2851054/