Cocaine is a stimulant drug made from the leaves of the coca plant and is one of the world’s most addictive drugs. You might know it as “blow,” “coke,” “crack,” “rock,” or “snow.” It’s a fine white powder that can be snorted up the nose, injected into the veins, or smoked. When first consumed, cocaine causes a sudden rush through the mind and body. When individuals are high on cocaine, they may feel alert, energetic, and unshakeable. But it isn’t long before users are left experiencing cocaine comedown, which can leave them feeling paranoid, irritable, depressed, foggy-brained, shaky, and exhausted. While cocaine’s effects on the body can be harsh, what cocaine does to the brain is equally, if not more, damaging.
Cocaine Throws Your Brain Off Balance
The first way cocaine affects your brain is by affecting the production of neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemical messengers. Neurotransmitters carry, boost, and balance signals between cells in our body. Dopamine, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter, signals our emotional responses, especially pleasure. Normally, the brain releases dopamine when we exercise, meditate, get a massage, have sex, eat good food, and listen to music we enjoy. When we do those things, small doses of dopamine travel through our brain cells and send messages of joy, amusement, and satisfaction.
But when you use cocaine, dopamine floods your brain. There’s so much of the chemical floating around that it doesn’t have anywhere to go. This surge of dopamine is what makes you feel high and euphoric. But your brain quickly becomes accustomed to these abnormal levels of dopamine. High levels of dopamine build up and over-activate receiving cells in the brain. When this happens, normal levels of dopamine aren’t enough to produce the same pleasurable effects. Cocaine also throws off the brain’s balance by suppressing other neurotransmitters, including:
- Norepinephrine, which may lead to memory loss
- Serotonin, which can cause obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior
Cocaine Damages the Structure of Your Brain
Using cocaine also has the potential to damage the structure of your brain in two different ways:
- Diminished function in your orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). Your orbitofrontal cortex is the part of your brain associated with decision-making. In essence, this part of your brain helps you decide what you prefer most among different options. Cocaine hinders the OFC, leaving you incapable of making rational decisions. The longer you use cocaine, the harder it may be for you to reason logically and make good decisions.
- Changes in gene expression. Gene expression is the process that allows your DNA to turn into a protein. When your genes are healthy and free of drugs, this process determines how your cells function. Unfortunately, cocaine changes how this process works in the hippocampus, the part of your brain responsible for learning and memory. Instead of associating moments like family time, social outings, and a spouse’s touch with feelings of pleasure, cocaine changes the gene expression. When that happens, your brain learns to love cocaine, associating the drug with a trusted and reliable source of pleasure. In other words, your brain drops its defenses against cocaine. Instead, your brain trusts cocaine as a pleasure source, reducing your ability to have self-control over your substance use. This, of course, can lead to compulsive behavior, addiction, and relapse.
Cocaine Can Kill Cells In Your Brain
A study conducted by John Hopkins University found that cocaine can cause brain cells to kill themselves. In the study, cocaine triggered neurons to consume themselves from the inside out. Autophagy, the process through which this happens, is usually beneficial, but cocaine distorts it. “A cell is like a household that is constantly generating trash,” Prasun Guha, Ph.D., explains. “Autophagy is the housekeeper that takes out the trash—it’s usually a good thing. But cocaine makes the housekeeper throw away really important things, like mitochondria, which produce energy for a cell.” When your cells don’t receive the energy they need, they become damaged and can eventually die.
Long Term Effects of Cocaine Use On the Brain
If you use cocaine for a long period of time your brain might have long-term effects which can include:
- Severe depression
- Mood swings
- Increased risk for disorders like Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder
- Delirium or psychosis
- Auditory hallucinations
- Seizures and other neurological conditions
- Permanent damage to blood vessels
- Cognitive decline which may lead to disorientation and mental confusion
Cocaine Abuse Statistics You Should Know
In addition to understanding the damage cocaine can have on your brain, you should also know that:
- Cocaine is the second most addictive drug in the world.
- In 2018, more than 4 out of 5 people aged 12 or older were at risk for harm after using cocaine on a weekly basis.
- 5.5 million people used cocaine in 2018.¹
- In the same year, more than 750,000 people aged 12 or older used crack, a concentrated form of cocaine.¹
- 112,000 children between the ages of 12 and 17 years old used cocaine in 2018.¹
- Cocaine can reduce the amount of grey matter in your brain. Grey matter helps regulate how your senses perceive outside information, make decisions, speak, retain memories, and process information. If you abuse cocaine regularly, you can lose grey matter twice as fast as someone who doesn’t abuse cocaine.
- When young people use cocaine, the drug changes the shape of neurons and synapses.
- Cocaine may age your brain prematurely. Studies have shown that some cocaine users in their 30s and 40s have more brain changes than people older than 60 years old.
- Cocaine can cause chronic nosebleeds, a loss of smell, and kidney failure.
- Some signs and symptoms of cocaine use may include dilated pupils, runny nose, nosebleeds, tremors, weight loss, and burn marks on the hands, nose, or lips.
Addiction Treatment Can Help Restore Your Brain’s Health
Here at StoneRidge Centers, we believe in combining brain science with compassionate care and clinical support. We know how harmful addiction to cocaine and other substances can be to the brain. At the same time, we know that evidence-based treatment and cognitive behavioral therapy can help restore your brain’s health.
We want to help you get there. Reach out to us today at 855-593-2231 if you or a loved one is struggling with substance use.
Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies
Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.