Study probes heroin addiction's effect on the brain

November 11, 2013
Study probes heroin addiction's effect on the brain
DNA changes appear to rise with more years of drug abuse, researchers say.

(HealthDay)—Long-term heroin use changes how genes are activated in the brain, which leads to changes in brain function, according to a new study.

Researchers examined the brains of dead heroin users and focused on an area of the brain called the striatum, which plays a key role in drug abuse. They found significant changes in how DNA was being used in the brains, and the degree of change matched the number of years of heroin addiction.

They also found evidence that heroin overdose causes brain changes other than addiction, which indicates that the behaviors that lead to overdose have a different neural basis than those that lead to long-term abuse.

The observed changes to are driven by a process called epigenetics. This means environmental events modify the shape and packaging of DNA without changing the underlying DNA itself.

Instead, the structure of the DNA becomes more "open" or "closed," allowing some genes to be expressed [activated] more or less often. This changes what proteins are produced and, as a result, can change how the brain functions, the researchers said.

The study was scheduled for presentation Sunday at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego.

"Our study addresses a critical gap in our knowledge about because we cannot often directly study the brains of addicted humans," senior author Yasmin Hurd, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York City, said in a society news release.

"Our results provide important insights into how change in response to long-term heroin use, and give us the knowledge to help treat this dangerous disease," Hurd said.

According to the World Health Organization, 9.5 million people worldwide abuse , which puts them at a 20 to 30 times higher risk of death than non-drug users.

Data and conclusions presented at meetings typically are considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

Explore further: Heroin availability increasing across Washington state

More information: The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has more about heroin.

Related Stories

Heroin availability increasing across Washington state

June 12, 2013

New data from the University of Washington's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute indicates increases in heroin availability, abuse and deaths across the state, particularly among young adults ages 18-29. These increases are ...

Seeking new methods to treat heroin addiction

September 26, 2013

"Heroin itself is an inactive substance," explains Jørg Mørland, Norwegian forensic medicine and toxicology researcher. "The substances that heroin forms in the body are mainly what enter the brain and cause the narcotic ...

Inside the brains of addicts

November 6, 2013

Eating a good meal, a compliment on a new outfit, your team winning the football game – all these things make you feel good, and that's thanks to your brain's reward system.

Recommended for you

Next steps in understanding brain function

August 26, 2016

The most complex piece of matter in the known universe is the brain. Neuroscientists have recently taken on the challenge to understand brain function from its intricate anatomy and structure. There is no sure way to go about ...

Scientists map brain's action center

August 25, 2016

When you reach for that pan of brownies, a ball-shaped brain structure called the striatum is critical for controlling your movement toward the reward. A healthy striatum also helps you stop yourself when you've had enough.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.