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The Long-term Effects of Heroin on the Brain

A clean-cut man with sandy brown hair stands with his arms crossed in front of a mountain.
It’s a big world out there, but heroin can change your brain so that nothing matters except getting more of the drug.


It won’t happen to me.

For many, that’s the thinking behind the decision to do heroin. Sure, other people (23% to be exact) will end up strung out and addicted. But not me. I’ve got willpower. I’m in control.

Here’s what you’re missing: Heroin has an insidious ability to take that control away from you—and fast. Maybe even the first time you try it.

Heroin and its Effects on the Brain

When you do heroin, your body almost immediately converts it into morphine. It then binds to opioid receptors in the brain.

Next comes euphoria. Some estimate that heroin can increase the body’s dopamine levels by up to 10 times their normal level.

So this isn’t how you feel after, say, eating a good chocolate bar or listening to a song you love. This is a feeling of well-being like you’ve never experienced before.

And that’s how it happens.

After even just one use, the brain can begin to change. Normal life begins to lose its luster, while the rush of heroin keeps you coming back. Those with conditions like depression are especially vulnerable.

At the same time, heroin is going to work on the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe of the brain. These are the areas that are associated with long-term memory, decision-making, complex thought and controlling behavior.

You might have thought that you would never get addicted to heroin. But heroin has the power to change your mind. Before you even realize what happened, the drug can take control. The version of yourself who would never get addicted to heroin is no longer calling the shots.

Studies show that a lot of this damage can be reversed. But it doesn’t happen in a week or even a month.

While you can get over physical withdrawal symptoms in that time period, it takes longer for the brain to recover.

Recovery at The Raleigh House

How long should a heroin addict stay in rehab? At The Raleigh House, it’s our experience that 90 days is best. (The National Institute on Drug Abuse also recommends 90-day programs.) That allows enough time to begin to restore your body and mind—and to rebuild your life. Each person who walks through our doors is assigned a master’s level therapist to assist in that journey. Fill out our form or contact us today to learn more about the heroin addiction treatment program at The Raleigh House.

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