Opioid overdose

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionmore than 932,000 people have died of drug overdoses in the US since 1999. In 2020 alone, nearly 100,000 people died from overdoses. The main reason? Synthetic opioids – especially fentanyl.

This sharp increase in opioid-related overdoses in recent years included almost 69,000 deaths in 2020. Of those deaths, 82.3 percent involved synthetic opioids, which are artificially produced. But what makes synthetic opioids so deadly?

Fentanyl and synthetic opioids

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is about 100 times more powerful than morphine and 50 times more powerful than heroin in terms of how it affects the body Department of Justice/Drug Enforcement Administration.

Although it has become a household name in recent years, fentanyl has been around since its inception in 1959 and was introduced in the 1960s as an intravenous anesthetic for pain relief.

But today, the increase in illegal trafficking of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids has led to a sharp increase in the number of overdoses in the United States and abroad. These drugs are often overdosed occur when people use a drug, such as heroin, that is mixed with fentanyl.

Because a person is unaware of the presence of fentanyl, they are unaware that they are taking a potentially lethal dose. Once injected into the body, the drug travels to the brain, where binds to certain opioid receptors, known as mu-opioid receptors. These receptors are in the part of the brain that manages pain and emotions, which is why these drugs provide exceptional pain relief.

Why are these synthetic opioids so deadly?

Synthetic opioids, particularly fentanyl, are more lethal than more naturally occurring opioids for one main reason: they are more effective at binding to mu-opioid receptors.

When an opioid enters the brain and binds to these opioid receptors, an excessive amount of binding can cause drowsiness, disrupt the body’s breathing process, and eventually lead to loss of consciousness.

According to a A 2021 study published in Nature, fentanyl can take different binding modes in the brain, which may be why fentanyl is so lethal in such small doses. However, the researchers acknowledge that more research is needed to understand how fentanyl works in the brain.

“Surprisingly little is known about the signaling mechanism of fentanyl and how it interacts with [mu-opioid receptors] to an illicit analgesic response,” the researchers wrote in the study. “It is possible that fentanyl and its analogs bind and activate [mu-opioid receptors] in the same way as morphinan compounds; however, the structural basis is still missing.’

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