Opiates on the Brain
By Jennifer Hagaman
- Background of
Opiates: Exactly what are opiates?
Opium is formed from preparation of
the opium poppy which can be collected from gummy fluid that oozes out of
a cut in the developing seed pod of a poppy. The sap is
then dried into a ball, or dried into powder, or it can be made into an alcohol
water extract. Opiates can be injected, smoked, taken orally as pills,
Why we use opiates is a question of how much pain one is in. That
is, humans have been using opiates such as morphine and heroin for thousands
of years to lessen pain and for euphoria.
- How Opiates Work and The Effects
The effects of opiates are many, including a rush
immediately after injection, extreme relaxation, decreased sensation of pain,
and decreased sexual drive. Sexual drive is decreased as the opiate
affects the release of hormones and transmitters that regulate sexual behavior.
Opiates also effect other areas of the body including the pupils of the eyes.
That is, they cause extreme constricting. Other effects include
nausea and vomiting along with slowed breathing. The brain is stimulated
and thus causes nausea and vomiting usually occurs to detoxify the system.
Moreover, opiates also increase muscle tension in the gastrointestinal
The way that opiates work on the brain is that they bind
to specific receptors , that is, the neurotransmitters in the brain that control
movement, moods, and physiology, which includes digestion, body temperature
and breathing. They cause the neurotransmitters to fire at a high rate
as they would in times of extreme stress.
Another effect of opiates is that they have a damaging side effect known
as addiction. This addiction that one may have to opiates is one of
the hardest to overcome.
An important discovery of proteins called opiate receptors
in the brain shows how opiates affect the body and established an important
new method for studying drugs. Through this, a discovery of opiate like
chemicals produced in the body that control pain, immune responses and other
body functions was established. The opiate receptor was discovered in
1973 and since this discovery, scientists have been able to establish the
basic technique for studying brain receptors still used today.
The opiate receptor and other brain receptors are proteins located on the
surfaces of nerve cells, or neurons. The brain works through neurons
communicating with each other by releasing signaling chemicals called neurotransmitters.
These chemicals attach to the receptors on nearby neurons much like
a hand fits in a glove.
What is exciting about the discovery of the opiate receptor
discovery is that prior to 1973, scientists knew little about opiate drugs
and how they affected the brain. They knew that opiates acted on specific
neurons, and that opiate drugs that blocked their action all had a similar
molecular structure. Although they suggested that opiates worked by
attaching to a receptor, few receptor molecules had been found. Since
the opiate receptor is only a small percentage of the brain tissue, it was
initially hard to find. The way it was found was by using radioactive
naloxone, which is a synthetic opiate with a strong attraction to the
opiate receptor. This discovery of the opiate receptor was important
because it suggested that opiate drugs work by mimicking the natural opiate
like molecules used and made in the brain. With this came the identification
of endorphins which have the same actions as say, morphine.
Scientists can map brain structures that contain opiate
receptors that are responsible for opiate drug effects on the body and researchers
believe that opioid receptors may be important for the release of luteinizing
hormone which is an important reproductive peptide. Opioid receptors
are also important for regulation of the immune system.
Although a person
might have a positive reaction to an opiate, addiction usually doesn't happen
the first time they use a drug. Opiates are considered extremely addictive
and this addiction can affect the structure and function of the brain. Opiates
can alter the brain and affect one's motivation and emotions. The brain
changes over time and hence a person's behavior changes. Moreover, if
one uses a high enough dose of drugs, frequently enough, and over a
long period of time, the drugs can change the way the brain works. The
way in which the nerve cells communicate are changed so a compulsive, out
of control use develops despite experiencing some of the many side effects.
More specific effects of opiates on the brain include changes in the
synapses and shapes of brain cells. Chronic use is linked with structural
changes in the size and shape of specific neurons. That is to say that
there is a difference noticed in the brain between a chronic opiate user and
an occasional user.
- Brain Activity and Addiction
A very popular opiate used in treating pain today is hydrocodone, also
known as vicodin. Hydrocodone that is combined with acetaminophen is
known as vicodin. Use of this drug has been increasing over the past
decade as an estimated 7 million dosage units were diverted by the DEA in
1994 and in 1997 over 11 million. Over 56 million new prescriptions
were written for hydrocodone products and by 2000 over 89 million were written.
The average consumption nationwide has increased 300% from 1990 on.
There has been a 500% increase in the number of Emergency Department
visits that are contributed to hydrocodone abuse. In 2000, the estimated
visits were 19,221. The DEA laboratory system seized and analyzed over
1.3 million hydrocodone tablets in 1997.
- Specific Opiates/ Hydrocodone Use
Since hydrocodone is considered to be morphine like in
every aspect, it is easy to see why one may choose to use and abuse this substance.
It is easy to get by prescription and it is perceived to be safe, but
it is highly addictive and one may even develop a tolerance to the drug,
thus promoting a higher dosage needed to achieve the desired effect.
- Some internet sources of opiates and brain