A protein that is active in the reward pathway of healthy brains gets distorted and shortened in the brains of heroin addicts, according to new research.

The FosB protein remains much longer in the reward region of the brain – and can be detected more than a week after death, according to the paper, recently published in the Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy.

The evidence – by which FosB becomes DeltaFosB, powering heroin addiction or other chemical dependency – may even last months in the living, added Monika Seltenhammer, leader of the team of scientists from the Medical University of Vienna’s Department of Forensic Medicine.

“Using highly sensitive detection methods, DeltaFosB was still detectable nine days after death,” said Seltenhammer, in a statement from the school.

The brains of 15 dead heroin addicts and 15 otherwise healthy cadavers were compared and contrasted. The nuanced protein differences became clear under the microscope, they said. (Previous in-vivo animal experiments had showed the protein differences, as well).

But the distorted chemical pathway last far longer than expected in human corpses, the study says.

“Although we assumed that DeltaFosB might be a comparatively stable transcription factor, with an approximate half-life of 10 hours… our recent results have considerably exceeded our expectations, especially with immunoblotting results,” they added.

The DeltaFosB essentially is a more stable protein. It becomes a kind of “dependence memory,” which would indicate whether that person had a serious chemical dependency, regardless of whether the deceased had drugs in their system at the time of the death.

The forensic applications during autopsies could indicate whether a deceased person did indeed have a drug dependency, independent of toxicology results.

The scientists contend that the discovery could also be used to treat the onset of addictions, and overall physiological dependency.

“Our results show that forensics and forensic medicine can also be of direct benefit to the living,” said Daniele Risser, head of the school’s Department of Forensic Medicine.