How Does Fentanyl Affect the Brain?

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Fentanyl abuse has been identified as one of the leading causes of skyrocketing overdose death rates in the U.S. How does fentanyl affect the brain, what makes this drug so dangerous, and how can you tell if someone has been abusing it?

What Is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid. This lab-created substance shares some characteristics with natural and semisynthetic opioids such as morphine, heroin, hydrocodone, and oxycodone, but it is much more potent. 

When fentanyl is used by doctors for legitimate medical purposes, it is typically prescribed to patients who have been experiencing severe pain, often as a result of cancer or in the aftermath of some surgical procedures. Due to its potency, fentanyl may not be given to some patients until they have developed a tolerance to morphine or another less powerful opioid.

In addition to alleviating pain, fentanyl also elicits a sense of euphoric sedation. These effects have made fentanyl and other opioids enticing to people who are seeking a certain type of recreational high. 

While there is no such thing as safe opioid abuse, misusing fentanyl can be particularly dangerous. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are responsible for an average of about 150 overdose deaths every day in the United States. 

How Does Fentanyl Affect the Brain?

To understand how this drug produces its effects, as well as why it is so dangerous, many researchers and other experts have attempted to answer the question, how does fentanyl affect the brain? Here are a few examples of what they have learned:

  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has reported that fentanyl binds to receptors in areas of the brain that are associated with mood, emotions, and pain sensitivity. However, if a person uses fentanyl or other opioids multiple times, the opioid receptors may become desensitized to the drugs, which negates their effects. This can push a person to use fentanyl more frequently or in larger doses.
  • A November 2022 article in the journal Neuroscience Bulletin noted that fentanyl use prompts nerve cells to release increased amounts of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is linked with learning, motivation, and reward. Dopamine also reinforces behaviors – so the release of this neurotransmitter can cause a person to want to use fentanyl again and again, which can raise their risk of many negative outcomes, including addiction, overdose, and death.
  • A September 2022 study in the journal PNAS Nexus used electroencephalogram (EEG) tests to reveal that fentanyl can stop a person’s breathing before they lose consciousness or exhibit other signs of overdose. The team that conducted this study also found that fentanyl produces a unique EEG signature, which the researchers say may help medical professionals administer more precise doses of the drug and monitor the effects of these doses more closely than is currently possible.

Fentanyl Abuse and Addiction

Knowing how does fentanyl affect the brain can be extremely important for treatment professionals. But how can you know if someone in your life needs treatment for fentanyl abuse or addiction? 

First, it is important to understand that abuse and addiction are not the same thing:

  • Abuse refers to the intentional misuse of a substance, which can be done in an attempt to self-medicate or for recreational purposes. In the case of fentanyl, which is often surreptitiously added to other illicit drugs as a way to intensify their effects, someone may abuse the substance without even realizing it.
  • Addiction is a behavioral health disorder that is characterized by repeated, compulsive use of a drug even after incurring harm and wanting to stop. Given fentanyl’s potency and the way it affects the brain, a person can become addicted to this drug very quickly. 

Now, let’s take a look at some common signs of both fentanyl abuse and fentanyl addiction.

Signs of Fentanyl Abuse

If you suspect that someone you know has been abusing fentanyl, keep an eye out for signs such as the following:

  • Sudden shifts in mood, attitude, and energy
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Constricted (pinpoint) pupils
  • Slow or shallow breathing
  • Drowsiness, weakness, and/or persistent exhaustion
  • Frequent bouts of constipation
  • Recurring flu-like symptoms
  • Trying to buy, borrow, or steal opioids that were prescribed to someone else
  • Lying to doctors about pain symptoms in order to get a prescription for opioids
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Being deceptive about how they have been spending their time
  • Noticeable drop in performance at work or in school

Symptoms of Fentanyl Addiction

When a person’s fentanyl abuse causes them to become addicted, they may experience or exhibit symptoms such as the following:

  • Having strong cravings for fentanyl
  • Spending considerable amounts of time seeking, acquiring, and using fentanyl
  • Failing to meet personal or professional responsibilities as a result of their fentanyl use
  • Continuing to use fentanyl even after incurring harm (such as job loss, overdose, being arrested, or losing a relationship) due to prior use of the drug
  • Using fentanyl in ways that are especially hazardous (such as abusing it in combination with alcohol, cocaine, or other drugs)
  • Developing tolerance and needing to use larger amounts of fentanyl to achieve the effects they desire
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they can’t get more of the drug, or when they try to stop using it
  • Wanting to stop using fentanyl, but being unable to do so

Please note that there is no such thing as safe fentanyl use. Ingesting this drug even once can be deadly. Every time a person uses it, their risk of irreversible harm increases.

In other words, don’t wait for someone to “hit rock bottom” before trying to convince them to get help. 

Fentanyl addiction can be devastating, but it is a treatable condition. When someone gets effective care from a reputable provider, they can overcome fentanyl’s effect on their brain, end their use of this dangerous substance, and live a healthier life in recovery.

Find Fentanyl Addiction Treatment in Nashville

Nashville Treatment Solutions provides personalized outpatient programming for adults whose lives have been disrupted by addictions to fentanyl and other opioids. Treatment options at our fentanyl addiction rehab in Nashville, Tennessee, include a partial hospitalization program (PHP), an intensive outpatient program (IOP) with both day and evening sessions, and traditional outpatient services. We also offer sober living residences for patients who need a structured and supportive place to live while they are in treatment.

To learn more about how we can help you or a loved one, or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Admissions page or call us today.