The Dragon Bites Back

December 10, 1999

Injecting heroin into a vein carries the risk of contracting infections and diseases through contaminated needles. In hopes of avoiding these problems, some heroin users have turned to the practice of "chasing the dragon." Chasing the dragon involves heating heroin over a flame to produce vapors. Users get "high" by inhaling the vapors through a straw or a tube. A recent research paper in the journal Neurology (November 10, 1999) suggests that chasing the dragon is a:


Researchers at Columbia University in New York reported that chasing the dragon can cause spongy holes in the brains of users. One "dragon chaser," a 21-year-old woman, could not stand or sit. A 40-year-old user had slurred speech and balance problems, and was unable to walk. Brain scans of these dragon chasers revealed holes in the brain's white matter, particularly in the areas of the cerebellum, posterior cerebral cortex and pathway from the cortex to the spinal cord (corticospinal tract).

It is unclear exactly what produced the holes in the brain. Scientists believe that an impurity in the heroin or even something in the foil used to heat the heroin may have caused the brain damage. Regardless of the cause of the brain damage, it is evident that chasing the dragon is no way to avoid being "bit."

References and further information:

Kriegstein, A.R., Shungu, D.C., Millar, W.S., Armitage, B.A., Brust, J.C., Chillrud, S., Goldman, J., Lynch, T. Leukoencephalopathy and raised brain lactate from heroin vapor inhalation., Neurology, 53:1765-73, 1999.

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