My son is in recovery, but he used heroin for a decade. Will his brain ever fully recover?
My son has used heroin for ten years and has been in recovery for a year now. Will his brain fully recover?
Heroin creates structural and functional changes in the brain that can be seen for quite some time after someone enters recovery. Some of those changes are within the reward system of the brain and create the cravings we associate with recurrence of symptoms or relapse. Overdose from heroin causes a shutdown of the respiratory system, and that lack of oxygen can result in brain damage.
Time is our friend when it comes to recovery. The longer a person can maintain recovery, the more we can expect that they will not suffer from a recurrence. Studies regarding the brain and how it heals from addiction are ongoing, but there is evidence that the brain does recover. One study shows that after one month of abstinence, the brain looks quite different than the healthy brain; however, after fourteen months of abstinence, the dopamine transporter levels (DAT) in the reward region of the brain (an indicator of dopamine system function) return to nearly normal function (Volkow et al. 2001).
An excellent resource that is meant to educate the general public is the Recovery Research Institute. The Recovery Research Institute is a leading nonprofit research institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, dedicated to the advancement of addiction treatment and recovery.
On its website, you can find answers to many questions, and if you go to this link https://www.recoveryanswers.org/recovery-101/brain-in-recovery, you can read an article on how the brain heals.
Hopefully your son is seeing a medical doctor who is aware of his prior drug use and can monitor his recovery and any impairment that may need more medical intervention. If not, I’d encourage him to do so.
 N. D. Volkow et al., “Loss of Dopamine Transporters in Methamphetamine Abusers Recovers with Protracted Abstinence,” Journal of Neuroscience 21, no. 23 (December 1, 2001): 9414–18. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.21-23-09414.2001.
Disclaimer: The above advice is not meant to be construed as medical or legal advice. If you need professional medical, psychological, or legal advice, please contact a doctor, lawyer, or medical center.
Maureen Cavanagh is a peer recovery coach and interventionist who works with families and loved ones supporting a person struggling with a substance use disorder on their own recovery. She is the founder of Magnolia New Beginnings and Magnolia Recovery and Consulting, and the author of If You Love Me: A Mother’s Journey Through Her Daughter’s Addiction and Recovery, published by Henry Holt/Macmillan, and NAADAC-approved FAST: Family-Focused Addiction Support Training. You can learn more about her at www.maureencavanagh.net
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