How Opioids Affect The Brain

Confronting opioid addiction is one of the great emotional and physical challenges a person can face. To understand how opioid addiction treatment is intended to work, it can be helpful to also understand how opioids affect the brain. Let's take a look at four things everyone should know about that process and what it means for treatment.

Opioid Receptors

First, it's notable that the human brain actually has a small supply of opioids that it produces on its own. The brain has receptors that are intended to grab onto to the chemicals that exist naturally to regulate certain emotional and bodily functions. Unfortunately, things go haywire when an outside supply of opioids is introduced to the body. Worse, as the body is subjected more and more of the chemicals, it develops a tolerance.

Dopamine and Reinforcement

Another brain chemical, dopamine, plays a role in reinforcing behaviors. It's often associated with the bonds that people form after stress, such as when a mother bonds with a newborn or when soldiers bond from being in combat. Dopamine also normally reinforces basic reward structures, such as developing a sense of reward from consuming delicious food, thus making sure a person remembers to eat.

When opioids are consumed, those reinforcement mechanisms kick in. For individuals prone to addiction cycles, this may ultimately lead to the reward coming from doing drugs. It's also one of a handful of reasons that many people dealing with opioid addiction lose interest in activities they used to enjoy.


Arguably the scariest part of this is when withdrawal symptoms kick in. These usually happen between 12 and 30 hours after the last dose. When this happens, the brain and the body both want to get more opioids because they've detected a drop from what has become the "normal" level they expect.

One silver lining that comes with opioid withdrawal is that it is not lethal in and of itself. There are some fatality risks associated with some drugs that are used to treat extreme cases, though. Likewise, individuals who've engaged in mixed use with substances like cocaine and alcohol may face some mortality risks during withdrawal due to those drugs' issues.


Opioid addiction treatment is a structured process aimed at breaking the cycle. Some people are weaned of the drug using methadone, a less potent class of opioids. In time, the brain can rewire itself to resume normal operation without opioids.

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