Opiates are powerful drugs that cause feelings of intense euphoria. While some forms of opiates are illicit drugs, such as heroin, legal versions include prescription medication used to treat health conditions such as chronic pain. Unfortunately, abuse of both illegal and legal opiates can be extremely dangerous. Overdoses from prescription painkillers alone resulted in more than 22,000 deaths in 2013 (National Institute of Drug Abuse). Addiction to opiates has become an epidemic in the United States, sending medical professionals scrambling to learn more about the effects that opiates have on the brain. According to Science Daily, scientists at Western University have recently discovered a “switch” in the brain that might be the key to opiate addiction.
When people become addicted to opiates, they begin to experience powerful cravings for the drug when they are not high. Addicts might also be chemically dependent on the drug, so that when they abstain from using for a period of time, they go through painful withdrawals. During periods of withdrawal, memories of their high can cause them to associate their opiate addiction to environmental triggers, producing even more intense cravings. For example, a painkiller addict who stores his or her pills in the medicine cabinet might associate the bathroom with opiate use, causing a craving whenever he or she enters that particular room. But what makes these associations in the brain so intense?
The Addiction Research Group at Western University might have found the answer. The group has attempted a study on a region of the brain called the basolateral amygdala, which is responsible for regulating memories associated with opiate addiction. By studying lab rats, the research team discovered that the molecular pathways used to form memories of opiate use changed before and after the rats underwent addiction. Before becoming addicted, the rats’ brains recruited the molecule called extracellular signal-related kinase, or “ERK.” Once addiction had set in, however, the rats’ brains switched to the molecular pathway called calmodulin-dependent kinase II or “CaMKII.” In effect, opiate addiction had caused a physical, observable change in the way the brain behaves.
The new research reveals that opiate addiction is more than just a psychological condition. Addiction is not only associated with chemical dependence, but with physical changes in the ways that addicts process memories. This finding has the potential to change the way scientists treat addiction and may lead to the development of newer and more effective medications to combat opiate addiction.
If you or someone you know has become addicted to prescription painkillers or other opiates, there has never been a better time than now to seek treatment. The Prescription Drug Abuse Helpline of California can answer all of your questions and connect you with a treatment program that meets your needs. Call us at any time to speak with a qualified addiction specialist.