Chronic heroin use disorder and the brain: current evidence and future implications

Serenella Tolomeo, J. Douglas Steele, Hamed Ekhtiari, Alex Baldacchino

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


The incidence of chronic heroin use disorder, including overdose deaths, has reached epidemic proportions. Here we summarise and evaluate our knowledge of the relationship between chronic heroin use disorder and the brain through a narrative review. A broad range of areas was considered including causal mechanisms, cognitive and neurological consequences of chronic heroin use and novel neuroscience-based clinical interventions. Chronic heroin use is associated with limited or very limited evidence of impairments in memory, cognitive impulsivity, non-planning impulsivity, compulsivity and decision-making. Additionally, there is some evidence for certain neurological disorders being caused by chronic heroin use, including toxic leukoencephalopathy and neurodegeneration. However, there is insufficient evidence on whether these impairments and disorders recover after abstinence. Whilst there is a high prevalence of comorbid psychiatric disorders, there is no clear evidence that chronic heroin use per se causes depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD and/or psychosis. Despite the growing burden on society from heroin use, knowledge of the long-term effects of chronic heroin use disorder on the brain remains limited. Nevertheless, there is evidence for progress in neuroscience-based interventions being made in two areas: assessment (cognitive assessment and neuroimaging) and interventions (cognitive training/remediation and neuromodulation). Longitudinal studies are needed to unravel addiction and neurotoxic mechanisms and clarify the role of pre-existing psychiatric symptoms and cognitive impairments.
Original languageEnglish
Article number110148
Number of pages32
JournalProgress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry
Early online date23 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - 20 Dec 2021


  • fMRI
  • Heroin
  • Neurocognition
  • Neuroimaging
  • Neuroscience
  • sMRI
  • Neurology
  • Interventions


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