Promising New Treatment Tools for Heroin Addiction


If you are seeking treatment for heroin addiction, are already in recovery or know someone who is, you are likely aware that available pharmaceutical treatments are helpful but have their drawbacks.

Methadone, subutex and suboxone help by diminishing heroin’s effects, but these substances are addictive in their own right.

Better solutions may be on the way because researchers have figured out what a master of disguise heroin is after it enters the body. Apparently, heroin is a transformer. It does not remain in the body as heroin for very long.

Heroin’s Metamorphosis in the Body

A widely-held theory about heroin has been that once taken it enters an individual’s brain, it is quickly converted to morphine. It turns out that heroin’s transformation while cruising the body is more complicated than that.

Heroin actually undergoes several changes as it journeys to the brain, finally becoming what scientists call metabolite 6-MAM (metabolites are molecules formed as substances are metabolized, or broken down in our body). It is primarily metabolite 6-MAM that slips across the blood-brain barrier and, in certain parts of the brain, instigates an increase in dopamine – the neurotransmitter that triggers a sense of pleasure and reward.

“This points towards 6-MAM as the main substance behind all the acute effects of heroin,” says scientist Dr. Jorg Morland, Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

After about one hour, most of the 6-MAM undergoes its own transformation and morphs into morphine – the dominant active reward trigger for the next several hours. Even the morphine eventually changes into a metabolite called morphin-6-glucuronide.

Heroin’s Detectives

Years ago, scientists realized heroin does not produce its effects by parking itself on the brain’s opioid (pleasure) receptors. This prompted some scientists to investigate and figure out how heroin works in the body.

Morland and his colleagues, through studies involving mice and rats, discovered that once in our system, heroin becomes a metabolite that then becomes morphine that then becomes another metabolite. According to Morland:

We are working to understand the roles of all these metabolites and to investigate potential treatments to counter their effects. Gaining a thorough understanding of the effects of heroin and of the neurobiological mechanisms involved will be a valuable basis for the development of new treatments for addiction.

Promising New Treatments

Fortunately, the Norwegian scientists’ efforts to use their data for developing new treatments are bearing fruit. They are examining a couple of options that may prove more effective than current methods. One of them is sustained-release naltrexone, a non-addictive opioid antagonist that blocks opiate effects in the brain.

Even more exciting is the possibility of treating heroin addiction by preventing the drug from entering the brain. A company in Norway is attempting to create an antibody that binds to the 6-MAM molecules in the bloodstream, making them too big to cross the blood-brain barrier.

“If we succeed in getting this antibody to work it could block much – and maybe even all – of the effect of heroin,” Morland concludes.

Source: Research Council of Norway

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