On Heroin

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Biology 202
2004 Second Web Paper
On Serendip

On Heroin

Ariel Singer

Heroin: one of the most potent drugs on Earth, addiction, poverty, tweaking, Mingus, track marks, creativity, dealing, poetry, blow, Warhol, needles, glamour, oblivion, AIDS, music, hallucinations, Coltrane, junkie, anesthesia, lines, joy, smack, the Velvet Underground, rush, brain dead, genius. Death. Life.

Heroin: no matter who you are, how you have been raised or what experiences you have had in life, when someone mentions it, you have a reaction, a brief flood of words and accompanying images. Maybe you are a recovering addict, maybe your best friend does it, maybe you campaign against it, or maybe you listen to the music and watch the movies. Even if you are none of these, or all of them, you cannot have escaped the inevitable stereotype that surrounds this deadly miracle drug: try it once and you become an addict for life.

In case you have not heard people talking about the instant addictive powers of heroin for yourself, here are a few examples perpetuating the myth:
"And once you try heroin, it's almost impossible to get off it without help." (1)
"After only one 'try', a heroin user can become addicted immediately." (2)
"All they have to do is try heroin once and that's all it takes." (3)
"Even trying heroin once can spell addiction"(4)

Before explaining how heroin effects the brain it seems necessary to describe the symptoms of use: rush, pleasure, euphoria, nausea, comfort, lack of pain, happiness, drowsiness, warmth, heaviness, constipation, floating, blurriness, contentment. (5)

"...the cold wash of anesthesia hit me it swept over me, a wave that started at the tip of my, rushing across my face to my head, running down my neck to my chest, crashing into a warm golden explosion in my stomach, my groin, a blessed sensation beyond the peak of orgasm and relief of nausea, as every muscle in my body relaxed and my head lolled gently my shoulder, every sense unwinding, unburdened of the crushing weight of pain I never even knew that I had: the rush, the wave, death, heaven, completion. For hours and hours. The hit. Sensual ultimatum...." (6)

And the symptoms of withdrawal: goose bumps, watery eyes, runny nose, tremors, hallucinations, panic, chills, nausea, cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, (7) drug craving, kicking spasms, bone pain, insomnia. (8)

"Relinquishing junk. Stage one, preparation. For this you will need one room which you will not leave. Soothing music. Tomato soup, ten tins of. Mushroom soup, eight tins of, for consumption cold. Ice cream, vanilla, one large tub of. Magnesia, milk of, one bottle. Paracetamol, mouthwash, vitamins. Mineral water, Lucozade, pornography. One mattress. One bucket for urine, one for feces and one for vomitus. One television and one bottle of Valium. Which I've already procured from my mother. Who is, in her own domestic and socially acceptable way also a drug addict. And now I'm ready. All I need is one final hit to soothe the pain while the Valium takes effect." (9)

And now for some science: Papaver somniferum is the derivation of heroin. And as many people probably know another derivative is commonly found on morning snacks. Papaver somniferum is the opium poppy plant. (As an interesting note: somni is derived from the Latin word for dream and ferum is likely from the work for wild or savage). When the secretion from this poppy is dried it becomes opium. The major component of opium is morphine. When this alkaloid is combined with acetic acid it forms heroin, technically diacetylmorphine, by "acetylation of the phenolic and alcoholic OH groups." (10)

Contrary to popular belief heroin has very little effect on the central nervous system. It is primarily the transportation mechanism for the highly potent morphine that is at its core. Imagine: you have a tourniquet wrapped around your biceps so that your veins will rise. The hypodermic needle has been filled with the heated heroin. You insert the spike into the vein and the heroin rushes through your bloodstream. It hits you blood-brain barrier, already having been converted to 6-mono-acetylmorphine (MAM) through hydrolysis. This compound, unlike pure morphine, is lipid-soluble and races through into your brain with almost no delay. Now the MAM rapidly brakes down into morphine and the rush is over, but the high has just begun. (11)

Once the morphine is in the brain it can go to work. One of the primary ways in which heroin creates its effect is by simulating the natural opiate-like neurotransmitters (called the endogenous opioids, which include endorphins) in the brain. There are receptors for these natural opiates (which will except both the natural and artificial varieties) on neurons containing GABA neurotransmitters. GABA proteins are involved in the inhibition of the release of dopamine.

Normally the GABA neuron receives a signal and releases a large number of neurotransmitters, these bind to receptors on the dopamine neuron and allow the Cl» waiting in the synaptic cleft to enter the dopamine neuron. This signals the neuron to release only a small, specific, amount of dopamine, which in turn binds to another neuron and leads to "normal" feelings of contentment or pleasure. (12)

The presence of morphine alters this pattern. When the morphine binds to the opiate receptor on the GABA neuron it represses the release of the GABA neurotransmitters, this in turn represses the amount of Cl» that is allowed into the dopamine neuron. Without the Cl» to inhibit it, the neuron releases a large amount of dopamine, leading to the feeling of euphoria and supreme contentment. (13)

The reason that coming down after taking heroin is so painful is because you have used up a huge quantity of dopamine in one rush. Thus your body has to make more before it can begin to release it normally again.

When a person becomes an addict, this problem only becomes worse, each use of heroin adding to the last. Finally, when the cells that create dopamine are put under a significant amount of stress, they will start to shut down, producing less dopamine. This is one of the reasons that withdrawal from heroin is so extreme. (14)

As with most experiences, once is not enough to make you an addict. The technical definition of an addict is "someone who is physiologically dependent on a substance [and] abrupt deprivation of the substance produces withdrawal symptoms."15 To become "physiologically dependent" means that your body needs to have the drug to function, without it you will go through withdrawal. It seems that the chemical actions that cause withdrawal come when heroin has been used so much that the body cannot function when only being supplied with the normal level of dopamine. If heroin is only taken once the user will suffer a "low" after taking the drug, because a large amount of their dopamine has been used up, but their neurons have not become damaged or adjusted to the drug, and do not require it to work, thus the person is not addicted.

None of this analysis includes psychological need. It seems quite possible that a person might try heroin just once and then continue to take it, and eventually become addicted, because they believe that they cannot live without the feeling that its creates for them. However it is important to realize that just because a person feels a need for the drug, it does not follow that the body has become addicted, or dependent upon that drug.

Thus, it is possible to see that while many people will assert that heroin can be instantaneously addictive, they are incorrect. Heroin is highly addictive and can cause serious problems for people who become addicts. This, however, does not justify the spreading of incorrect information. All people should be fully educated, and then allowed to make their own decisions. We cannot protect people from the truth, they will learn it and as adults, they must make their own choices.

While researching the effects of heroin, it seemed that no one was fully able to describe how using heroin feels, except for the Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground in the song, aptly titled


I don't know just where I'm going
But I'm gonna try for the kingdom, if I can
'Cause it makes me feel like I'm a man
When I put a spike into my vein
And I'll tell ya, things aren't quite the same
When I'm rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus' son
And I guess that I just don't know
And I guess that I just don't know

I have made the big decision
I'm gonna try to nullify my life
'Cause when the blood begins to flow
When it shoots up the dropper's neck
When I'm closing in on death
And you can't help me not, you guys
And all you sweet girls with all your sweet talk
You can all go take a walk
And I guess that I just don't know
And I guess that I just don't know

I wish that I was born a thousand years ago
I wish that I'd sail the darkened seas
On a great big clipper ship
Going from this land here to that
In a sailor's suit and cap
Away from the big city

Where a man cannot be free
Of all of the evils of this town
And of himself, and those around
Oh, and I guess that I just don't know
Oh, and I guess that I just don't know

Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it's my wife and it's my life
Because a mainer to my vein
Leads to a center in my head
And then I'm better off and dead
Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don't care anymore
About all the Jim-Jim's in this town
And all the politicians makin' crazy sounds
And everybody puttin' everybody else down
And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds

'Cause when the smack begins to flow
Then I really don't care anymore
Ah, when the heroin is in my blood
And that blood is in my head
Then thank God that I'm as good as dead
Then thank your God that I'm not aware
And thank God that I just don't care
And I guess I just don't know
And I guess I just don't know


1 ) Heroin: How Big is the Problem? , Channel 6 News: WJAC, 2003.

2 ) Goal One - Education , A Heroin Dealer a Day, February 23, 2004.

3 ) Fighting Drugs: Mother' Fears, Sorrows, Regrets , Chesterton Tribune, March 22, 2004.

4 ) Heroin Reaches the Well-To-Do Adolescent Population , Medscape Special Report, November 12, 2002.

5 ) Heroin , Drug Info Clearinghouse.

6 ) Carnwath, Tom, and Ian Smith, Heroin Century, London and New York: Routledge, 2002, 98.

7 ) Heroin Withdrawal , Narconon Southern California.

8 ) Info Facts: Heroin , National Institute on Drug Abuse, June 25, 2003.

9 ) Memorable Quotes from Trainspotting , International Movie Database.

10 ) Platt, Jerome J., and Christina Labate, Heroin Addiction: Theory, Research and Treatment, New York: Wiley-Interscience Publications, 1976, 48.

11 ) Platt, Jerome J., and Christina Labate, Heroin Addiction: Theory, Research and Treatment, New York: Wiley-Interscience Publications, 1976, 52-53.

12 ) How Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters: Opiates , The Brain from Top to Bottom.

13 ) How Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters: Opiates , The Brain from Top to Bottom.

14 ) The Science of Addiction , Somerset Medical Center, February 2003.

15 ) Addict , Dictionary.com, 1997.

| Course Home Page | Course Forum | Brain and Behavior | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:53:05 CDT