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Opiate Addiction: A Disorder of the Brain

Opiate Addiction: A Disorder of the Brain

Opiate Addiction: A Disorder of the Brain

By Kelly Donohue, Ph.D.


Opiate addiction is a disease that used to be accompanied with shame and guilt.  Instead of being labeled as a brain disorder, it was categorized as a behavior disorder developed through the fault of the individual.  However, addiction was recently identified as a disorder of the brain.  This enabled individuals to receive treatment for the disorder without being labeled as having done something wrong (Cooper, 2004). Opiate addiction can be effectively managed, however there is no true “cure” for addiction.

Opiate Drugs Defined

            Opiate drugs are drug that bind to the opioid receptors in the brain (Waldhoer, Bartlett, and Whistler, 2008).  Opioid receptors are part of a class of receptors that are responsible for mediating the actions of the majority of hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain. When opiate drugs bind to these receptors, they cause an analgesic response dulling both physical and emotional pain.  Examples of opiate drugs are heroin and morphine.  This class of drugs is of particular interest when studying addiction because of the drugs capacity to increase tolerance, dependence, and addiction (Waldhoer, Bartlett & Whistler, 2008). 

Treatment for Opiate Addiction

There are a variety of methods to treat opiate addictions including behavioral therapies, through the use of prescription drugs, and combination therapies.  In order to treat opiate addiction an individual must be willing to work to change behaviors that have become “normal” to them in order to create a new lifestyle (McLellan, Lewis, O'Brien, & Kleber, 2000).  Prescription drugs available to assist in this process block opiate receptors as a means to reduce cravings and thoughts of using.  Three of the most commonly used drugs are Methadone, Buprenorphine and Naltrexone.  Each of these drugs differs in how they help to control addiction (National Institute on Drug Addiction, 2010).  Relapse is often a part of recovery, and many individuals suffering from opiate addiction will relapse at least once.  However, relapsing does not mean that treatment was a failure.  When an individual relapses it is important for them to continue with their treatment and work toward sobriety (McLellan, Lewis, O'Brien, & Kleber, 2000). 


            Opiate addiction is a detrimental brain disorder that drastically impacts the quality of life of individuals.  Individuals who use opiates often have difficulties functioning in society, and are unable to get through a day without the use of opiate substances.  The use of opiate drugs hinders the natural reward center of the brain, and affects the ability to feel emotions.  Currently, methods of managing opiate addiction include the use of pharmaceutical drugs as well as behavioral therapies.  The combination of these two interventions can assist individuals in managing their addiction.  However, according to the medical model opiate addiction cannot be cured.  It can only be managed through the use of learned behavioral techniques and taking pharmaceutical drugs as prescribed. 


Cooper, H. (2004). Medical theories of opiate addiction's etiology and their relationship to   addicts’ perceived social position in the United States: A historical analysis. International        Journal of Drug Policy, 435-445.

Waldhoer, M., Bartlett, S. E., & Whistler, J. L. (2004). Opioid receptors.  Annual Review of   Biochemistry, 73(1), 953-990.

McLellan A. T., Lewis D. C., O'Brien C. P., Kleber H. D. (2011). Drug dependence, a chronic          medical illness: Implications for treatment, insurance, and outcomes evaluation. JAMA,         284(13), 1689-1695.

National Institute on Drug Addiction (2007).  Drugs, Brain, and Behavior: The Science of    Addiction. http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/science-addiction/



*The information contained in this blog posting is not intended to be used for legal or clinical guidance. The expressions viewed in this post are those of the author and may not represent The Guidance Center.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

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