Morphine is a potent opiate used as an analgesic for managing pain — it’s also highly addictive. But what does a morphine addiction actually do to the brain?
In what ways does morphine impact the brain’s structures, chemicals and reward system?
Let’s start with the basics.
What is morphine?
Morphine is a naturally occurring opiate derived from the opium poppy plant indigenous to Southeast Asia. In the US, the DEA has assigned morphine a Schedule II classification, as it has medicinal value but also a high potential for abuse and addiction.
The effects of morphine include an absence of pain, deep relaxation and a dreamlike state of euphoria. Morphine is often used as anesthesia associated with surgery or for pain management in terminal cancer patients. Some doctors may also prescribe morphine for short-term pain relief following an injury. Morphine can be administered via IV, injection, or pill form.
How morphine impacts the brain
Morphine works by binding to the opioid receptors in the brain, thereby blocking pain signals from the nervous system. In as little as one month of daily usage, morphine can cause significant effects on the brain. These include:
- Reduced neuroplasticity
- Psychomotor impairment
- Decreased gray matter volume in the amygdala
- Diminished reflex response
- Disrupted brain synapses causing impared memory
- Reduced respiration and heart rates due to changes in the neural activity in the brain stem
- Interference with the brain’s chemical messenger production, distribution, and reabsorption
Morphine has a profound effect on the brain’s reward system. Morphine causes the brain to release a flood of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter. This registers in the reward system, prompting repeated use of the drug by causing cravings. Over time, the brain trains the person to seek pleasure through morphine instead of the usual sources of pleasure.
Consequences of morphine addiction
Morphine addiction occurs after a chemical dependence has formed — although not everyone with morphine dependence will go on to develop addiction. Abusing morphine recreationally, such as by snorting, smoking, or injecting the drug, increases the risk of addiction and overdose.
Addiction to morphine involves compulsive use of the drug that leads to numerous consequences, impacting physical, mental and behavioral aspects of one’s life. Once addicted to it, the individual will experience harsh withdrawal effects when the morphine wears off. These include:
- Stomach cramps
- Excessive yawning
- Excessive tearing of the eyes
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle aches
- Rapid breathing
- Brain fog
Withdrawal symptoms are the result of the changes that morphine has caused in the brain. The brain has become accustomed to the drug and, in its absence, will cause these signs of destabilization.
Help for morphine addiction
As with any opioid use disorder, someone who wishes to break free from morphine dependence or addiction will benefit from the help of a formal substance recovery treatment program. These comprehensive treatment programs utilize an evidence-based approach to guide the individual toward making lasting changes in thought and behavior patterns.
Treatment for morphine addiction will involve a combination of elements that are designed to work together. The blend of therapies and holistic methods help to bring about positive behavioral changes, while also equipping the individual with needed recovery skills and coping techniques.
In learning how morphine addiction affects the brain, it is clear that great caution be exercised, even when using it for medical reasons. However, with patience and commitment, an individual can overcome a morphine addiction.