Background Abuse of heroin and prescription opiate medications has grown to disturbing levels. Opioids mediate their effects through mu opioid receptors (MOR), but minimal information exists regarding MOR-related striatal signaling relevant to the human condition. The striatum is a structure central to reward and habitual behavior and neurobiological changes in this region are thought to underlie the pathophysiology of addiction disorders. Methods We examined molecular mechanisms related to MOR in postmortem human brain striatal specimens from a homogenous European Caucasian population of heroin abusers and control subjects and in an animal model of heroin self-administration. Expression of ets-like kinase 1 (ELK1) was examined in relation to polymorphism of the MOR gene OPRM1 and drug history. Results A characteristic feature of heroin abusers was decreased expression of MOR and extracellular regulated kinase signaling networks, concomitant with dysregulation of the downstream transcription factor ELK1. Striatal ELK1 in heroin abusers associated with the polymorphism rs2075572 in OPRM1 in a genotype dose-dependent manner and correlated with documented history of heroin use, an effect reproduced in an animal model that emphasizes a direct relationship between repeated heroin exposure and ELK1 dysregulation. A central role of ELK1 was evidenced by an unbiased whole transcriptome microarray that revealed ~20% of downregulated genes in human heroin abusers are ELK1 targets. Using chromatin immune precipitation, we confirmed decreased ELK1 promoter occupancy of the target gene Use1. Conclusions ELK1 is a potential key transcriptional regulatory factor in striatal disturbances associated with heroin abuse and relevant to genetic mutation of OPRM1.