State of Addiction: How Opioids Affect Our Brain Chemistry

A day doesn't go by in local newsrooms without a call to first responders reporting a drug overdose. The majority of those calls are for overdoses of heroin or other opioids. The victims no longer fit the profile of a stereotypical junkie. They're blue collar workers, white collar workers, teens, people in their twenties, up through their sixties and older. Moms, dads, aunts, uncles and even grandparents.

The problem is so great, so widespread, that the Observer-Dispatch and Eyewitness News have teamed up to create a special presentation to help you better understand the situation. Through this collaboration, we'll bring you the reasons why these substances are addictive, and the origins of the crisis. When pain killers become a problem, and when that problems turns to heroin.

"Opioids are a class of drug that act on specific receptors inside the brain, they cause the release of these reward chemicals when you haven't really done anything good. Your brain thinks it is because you're hot wiring the system, said Director of the Department of Neuroscience at Utica College, Dr. Adam Pack.

He says our bodies release these reward chemicals naturally. It typically happens when we exercise and our bodies release dopamine leaving us feeling good and wanting more.

"When you for example shoot up heroin, and it short circuits this pathway that makes you think you've done something wonderful but you're chasing the same thing you're chasing that release of dopamine serotonin in different parts of the brain."

Our bodies become used to receiving rewards and will therefore experience withdrawals.
"And that means if you don't go to the gym you're now below normal and you feel terrible."

That chase to keep being rewarded is what eventually leads to addiction.
"What happens is you enter this addictive state where you stop getting a reward from the experience and what you're removing a negative stimulus."

And removing that reward makes our bodies demand more each time so instead of feeling better when you take heroin or any drug you happen to be addicted to you feel miserable when you don't have it and adding the drug brings you back up to normal.

But this epidemic that's sweeping the nation hardly starts at heroin, but with medication used to treat pain-

"You get prescribed these things, you take them... They relieve the pain exactly the way they're supposed to."
But they're also activating this reward pathway and if you're not extremely careful what happens is when you stop taking them you're miserable.

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