Heroin abuse accelerates biological aging: A novel insight from telomerase and brain imaging interaction

G. L.F. Cheng, H. Zeng, M. K. Leung, H. J. Zhang, Wui Man Lau, Y. P. Liu, G. X. Liu, P. C. Sham, Che Hin Chan, K. F. So, T. M.C. Lee

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

68 Citations (Scopus)


Heroin abuse and natural aging exert common influences on immunological cell functioning. This observation led to a recent and untested idea that aging may be accelerated in abusers of heroin. We examined this claim by testing whether heroin use is associated with premature aging at both cellular and brain system levels. A group of abstinent heroin users (n=33) and matched healthy controls (n=30) were recruited and measured on various biological indicators of aging. These measures included peripheral blood telomerase activity, which reflects cellular aging, and both structural and functional measures of brain magnetic resonance imaging. We found that heroin users were characterized by significantly low telomerase activity (0.21 vs 1.78; 88% reduction; t(61)=6.96, <o0.001; 95% confidence interval=1.12-2.02), which interacted with heroin use to affect the structural integrity of gray and white matter of the prefrontal cortex (PFC; AlphaSim corrected <o0.05), a key brain region implicated in aging. Using the PFC location identified from the structural analyses as a 'seed' region, it was further revealed that telomerase activity interacted with heroin use to impact age-sensitive brain functional networks (AlphaSim corrected <o0.05), which correlated with behavioral performance on executive functioning, memory and attentional control (Pearson correlation, all <o0.05). To our knowledge, this study is the first to attempt a direct integration of peripheral molecular, brain system and behavioral measures in the context of substance abuse. The present finding that heroin abuse is associated with accelerated aging at both cellular and brain system levels is novel and forms a unique contribution to our knowledge in how the biological processes of drug abusers may be disrupted.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere260
JournalTranslational Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jun 2013


  • Addiction
  • Aging
  • Heroin
  • MRI
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Resting state
  • Telomerase

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Biological Psychiatry


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