More People Are Inhaling Heroin, Can Cause Holes in the Brain, New Study Finds

A man inhales heroin. Getty Images

There is a growing trend of people inhaling heroin by heating it up and breathing in its fumes through a pipe. Researchers say this is particularly concerning because this method comes with potential brain complications, including a higher risk of dementia and other forms of lasting cognitive impairment.

The technique, commonly called "chasing the dragon," is gaining popularity with teenagers. And while injection use is still the most common method for using heroin in the U.S., the number of people inhaling the drug is steadily climbing, according to a new review published on Monday in the journal JAMA Neurology.

Users might gravitate toward this method since it is easier to administer, gives an intense high compared with snorting, and lessens the risk of contracting infectious diseases. The researchers argue that it's still not worth the risk.

heroin on foil with lighter and rolled up tube for smoking heroin. Researchers found that smoking heroin is gaining popularity with teenagers. Getty Images

"This is something that's unrecognized by physicians—people don't really think about it. And that's a problem," neurologist Ciro Ramos-Estebanez of the Cleveland Medical Center told Gizmodo. "It's something we can't neglect anymore."

Ramos-Estebanez and his colleagues decided to do the research when they came across a woman suffering from hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid in the brain, caused by opioids. The woman fell into a coma after she had inhaled heroin. She did wake up eventually, but she was left with permanent mental impairment.

The team of researchers looked at more than 30 studies and case reports. One of their most stunning findings was that inhaling heroin has become more popular with teenagers.

Out of all inpatient hospital visits in 2014 due to heroin abuse among 12- to 19-year-olds, at least 21 percent involved inhalation of the drug.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in the most extreme cases, inhaling heroin can have deadly consequences. It can leave holes in the brain's white matter, the fibers that allow brain cells to communicate with one another. That can cause difficulty speaking, comas and seizures. Not everyone is affected in the same way. Some people may only experience mild memory loss and cognitive impairment.

"It's a heavy cost for patients, their families, and society itself," Ramos-Estebanez said.