Opiate Receptors and Living Addicted

A Closer Look at Addiction

CDC WONDER Data for Website_02-04-15.pptxOpiate addiction has become a global epidemic.  It is estimated that up to 36 million people worldwide are abusing opiates, close to 2.1 million of these people live in the United States.  Accidental overdoses on prescription painkillers have increased at a staggering rate in the United States, more than quadrupling since 1999;  in the last 20 years, overdose related deaths have too nearly quadrupled, killing 22,767 in 2013.  In addition to these alarming numbers, substantial evidence just in the past few years has shown that dependence on prescription painkillers has a direct correlation with the abuse of illegal drugs such as heroin.

Today it is estimated that there are currently over 460,000 people in the United States alone who are now using heroin. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, from 2001-2013 the number of deaths from heroin have increased 5-fold.  Hundreds of thousands of families have been devastated by this toxic wave of destruction by addiction.  What eventually concludes in rehabilitation clinics, treatment centers or morgues, initially begins in the brain.  Let’s take a look at the science involved in addiction and how addicts are becoming neurologically dependent on opiates.

BackgroundDrugs such as OxyContin and Percocet are usually prescribed for the treatment of moderate to severe pain.  They work by attaching to opioid receptors on nerve cells distributed widely in the brain, spinal cord, gastrointestinal tract, and other organs in the body.  Opioid receptors are a group of inhibitory G protein-coupled receptors with opioids as ligands.  When these drugs attach to opiate receptors, they reduce the brain’s perception of pain and can produce a sense of well-being and pleasure because these drugs affect brain regions involved with reward. Opiate abusers often seek to intensify this experience by taking the drug in ways alternate than those prescribed (i.e. taking more then needed, taking them with other drugs or alcohol, crushing them and ingesting through the nasal tract and ultimately, injecting them intravenously). Along with addiction, some of the more common side-effects of this movement are drowsiness, confusion, nausea, and constipation.

Riding Shotgun

As seen in the video above, with the continued misuse of pain medication the brain’s reward system demands for more opiate and dopamine receptors to spawn. With these new receptors opening across the brain, more opiates and dopamine are sought after.  This process, or Positive Feedback Loop, quickly turns into addiction, as one’s brain needs the multiplying number of sites to be supplied with dopamine and opiates.  When the brain is cut off from this supply, it goes into a state of panic, causing the brain to feel the opposite of euphoric and pain free.  This is what is called withdrawal, which the addict is likely to counter with more opiates, causing the cycle to repeat once again while increasing their tolerance; thus causing the brain to create even more opiate receptors.

Hank Green of the popular Youtube Chanel SciShow takes an in depth look at addiction and the brain chemistry involved.

See how heroin is effecting the rest of your body with this Interactive Chart

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