How Cocaine Affects the Brain

Cocaine is one of the most widely used recreational drugs as well as one of the most highly dangerous and addictive. As with all drugs, the effects of cocaine are the result of its actions on the brain and modulation of neurotransmitters which in turn cause numerous subjective feelings and experiences. Understanding the way that cocaine affects the brain can help you to avoid potential addiction as well as enabling you to help others who might be abusing the highly destructive substance.

What Is Cocaine?

Cocaine comes from the coca plant and is created by turning the leaves into a powder. This powder can then be snorted for its effects, though in some cases it will be mixed with a base such as baking soda in order to give it a hard texture. In this form it is known as ‘crack’ or sometimes ‘rocks’ and can be smoked in a pipe. Crack cocaine is preferred by some as it allows the substance to reach the brain and take effect much more quickly – acting after 8 seconds as opposed to 10 minutes.

Cocaine exerts its effects specifically by acting on a part of the brain called the ‘ventral tegmental’ which is an area that is highly implicated in reward and motivation. Here it works to block the ‘reuptake’ of the neurotransmitter dopamine primarily via the dopamine transporters, but it also has similar effects on serotonin and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters once again are associated with reward, motivation, pleasure and alertness, and so this is how cocaine causes its effects.

Cocaine can also be referred to by a number of ‘street’ names and these include:

  • Crack
  • All-American Drug
  • Blow
  • Dream
  • Aunt Nora
  • Foo-foo Dust
  • Candy

Effects and Symptoms

In the short term then, cocaine causes the effects that are associated with above mentioned neurotransmitters and brain region. That means feelings of euphoria and pleasure as well as lots of energy, alertness and focus. It also suppresses appetite.

After about ten minutes however these effects wear off and the amount of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin all plummet leaving the user with a ‘crash’ or ‘come down’. This then leads to the opposite effects which include depression, lethargy, malaise and hunger/food cravings.

When used in higher amounts cocaine can also increase blood pressure and heart rate and cause users to grind their teeth. It can also lead to something unusual called ‘delusional parasitosis’ which is the feeling that they are covered in lots of tiny ‘bugs’ on or under the surface of their skin. This in turn can lead to incessant scratching and itching potentially causing sores and scratches on the skin.

When snorted, cocaine can damage the nose over time and cause nosebleeds in the short term. When smoked as crack, cocaine can also cause damage to the lungs. Over long durations cocaine can cause severe depression as a result of damage to the dopamine receptors in the brain.

Tolerance and Dependence

Addiction is a serious issue with cocaine which is highly psychologically and chemically addictive. This is due to the changes that cocaine causes in the brain by altering levels of dopamine receptors. Due to the sudden increase in dopamine that cocaine causes in the brain, adaptation occurs in order to help account for this by decreasing the number of dopamine receptors. In turn this then means that dopamine loses its potency in the brain and that more is needed to feel its full effects.

As a result, those who use cocaine will quickly find that the effects start to be less pronounced and that they thus need to have larger doses more often in order to enjoy the same effects. This is ‘tolerance’. At the same time, stopping using cocaine results in withdrawal symptoms as a result of ‘dependence’. Basically, when the addicted user stops using cocaine they are no longer getting the amount of dopamine activity they need in order to feel ‘normal’ and thus they experience withdrawal symptoms. Those include:

  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Malaise
  • Vivid nightmares
  • Slow movements
  • Insatiable hunger

Treatment

If you or someone you know is showing signs of cocaine addiction then it is highly important to get immediate medical attention to help them overcome this affliction. Cocaine addiction mostly revolves around the tapering of cocaine use in order to gradually help them overcome their addiction without suffering severe side effects.

Meanwhile cognitive behavioral therapy may be used to try and treat their addiction while at the same time addressing the underlying psychological issues that might have led to the addiction in the first place. It’s also important to consider that many cases of cocaine addiction go hand in hand with addictions to other substances such as marijuana or barbiturates (which addicts can use to ‘cushion the crash’ on the comedown from cocaine use). These might also require treatment.

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