• Open Access

Micromorphological changes in cardiac tissue of drug-related deaths with emphasis on chronic illicit opioid abuse




The main intention of this retrospective study was to investigate whether chronic illicit drug abuse, especially the intravenous use of opioids (heroin), could potentially trigger the development of myocardial fibrosis in drug addicts.


A retrospective case–control study was performed using myocardial tissue samples from both drug-related deaths (DRD) with verifiable opioid abuse and non-drug-related deaths in the same age group.


Department of Forensic Medicine, Medical University of Vienna, Austria (1993–94).


Myocardial specimens were retrieved from 76 deceased intravenous opioid users and compared to those of 23 deceased non-drug users.


Drug quantification was carried out using the enzyme-multiplied immunoassay technique (EMIT), followed by [gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC–MS), MAT 112®], and analysed using the Integrator 3390A by Hewlett Packard® and LABCOM.1 computer (MSS-G.G.). The amount of fibrous connective tissue (FCT) in the myocardium was determined by using the morphometric software LUCIA Net version 1.16.2©, Laboratory Imaging, with NIS Elements 3.0®.


Drug analysis revealed that 67.11% were polydrug users and the same proportion was classified as heroin addicts (6-monoacetylmorphine, 6-MAM)—32.89% were users of pure heroin. In 76.32% of DRD cases, codeine was detected. Only 2.63% consumed cocaine. The mean morphine concentrations were 389.03 ng/g in the cerebellum and 275.52 ng/g in the medulla oblongata, respectively. Morphometric analysis exhibited a strong correlation between DRD and myocardial fibrosis. The mean proportion of FCT content in the drug group was 7.6 ± 2.9% (females: 6.30 ± 2.19%; males: 7.91 ± 3.01%) in contrast to 5.2 ± 1.7% (females: 4.45 ± 1.23%; males: 5.50 ± 1.78%) in the control group, indicating a significant difference (P = 0.0012), and a significant difference in the amount of FCT between females and males (P = 0.0383). There was no significant interaction of age and FCT (P = 0.8472).


There is a long-term risk of cardiac dysfunction following chronic illicit drug abuse with opioids as a principal component. Regular cardiological examination of patients receiving substitution treatment with morphine is strongly recommended.