7 things to know about the history and science behind opioid addiction

Recreational opiate use and opiate addiction has taken many forms throughout history, according to PBS Newshour.

Now, with the rise of prescription painkillers, the introduction of extremely potent synthetic opioids and the resurgence of heroin, the nation is locked in an ongoing overdose epidemic some have called the worst public health crisis in modern American history. In 2016, 53,332 people in the U.S. died of an opioid overdose, according to PBS Newshour.

Here are seven things to know about the history and science of opioid addiction.

The history

1. The desire for opioid-induced euphoria has been a part of societies for centuries, dating back to around 3400 B.C., when ancient Sumerians called opium poppies "the joy plant."

2. The invention of morphine and the Civil War spurred widespread addiction among U.S. military veterans treated with the painkiller after being wounded. The condition was referred to as "Soldier's Disease."

3. Heroin was initially created as a cough syrup meant to curb morphine addiction in the late 1800s.

The science:

4. Types of pain: The human body reacts to peripheral pain — like a cut or burn — by releasing natural opioids called endorphins. These neural pathways can become overloaded when experiencing chronic pain, limiting the body's ability to reduce pain, which could drive an individual to regularly seek relief through medication.

5. The Mu receptor: The most crucial nervous system receptor for opioids is the Mu receptor. The Mu receptor facilitates the effect of opioids on the body.

"The depression, the analgesia, the constipation and the euphoria — if you take away the Mu-opioid receptor, and you give morphine, then you don't have any of those effects," Chris Evans, PhD, director of Brain Research Institute at UCLA in Los Angeles, told PBS Newshour.

6. The opioid pendulum: Addiction takes hold of opioid users after their neurons adapt to the medications. The brain adjusts to the presence of opioids by producing increased levels of the neurological messenger cyclic adenosine monophosphate. These molecules continue to fire communicative electrical pulses at heightened levels even after opioid use ceases. Instead of sending messages of opioid-induced happiness, these pulses flood the prefrontal cortex with feelings of dysphoria and anxiety. While other drugs like alcohol and cocaine spur addictive behaviors by altering the brain's pleasure system, the intense surge of withdrawal after discontinued use is unique to opioids.

7. Mood disorders: Experts believe opioid addiction is partly driven by users' moods, as mood disorders have the potential to exacerbate withdrawal symptoms. Patients with mood disorders experience 40 percent less pain relief from the drug than individuals without mood disorders, according to a 2005 study published in the journal Pain

"So, not only does a mood disorder affect a person's addiction potential, but it also influences if the opioids will successfully treat their pain," Cathy Cahill, PhD, a pain and addiction researcher at UCLA, told PBS Newshour.

To read the full report from PBS Newshour, click here.

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