Cocaine, whether in powder or crack form, has a powerful effect on the body and the brain. Using cocaine can damage brain cells, even after a few times of heavy use.
Keep reading this article with PK Halder to understand how cocaine can trigger brain damage and its other serious side effects.
How does cocaine affect your brain?
Cocaine is a stimulant. That means it affects the central nervous system. Like other stimulants, cocaine gives you an energy surge. That in turn boosts your alertness, leaving you feeling a “high” from the drug.
Other common, short-term effects of cocaine include:
- a feeling of “jitters” or restlessness
- decreased appetite
- a temporary feeling of intense happiness or pleasure
Why does cocaine specifically affect your brain?
Cocaine increases the amount of a chemical called dopamine in your brain. Dopamine naturally occurs in your brain. Small doses of dopamine travel through your brain cells to indicate pleasure or satisfaction.
When you’re using cocaine, dopamine floods your brain cells, but then it doesn’t have anywhere else to go. This excess dopamine blocks your brain cells from communicating with one another.
Over time, cocaine causes your brain to becomes less sensitive to dopamine. That means larger amounts of cocaine are necessary to produce the same effects of a dopamine high.
Over time, flooding your brain with dopamine can damage the structure of the brain. That’s why heavy cocaine use can lead to seizure disorders and other neurological conditions.
Cocaine use slows the glucose metabolism in your brain as well. That can cause the neurons in your brain to work more slowly or begin to die off.
A 2016 study in the brains of mice gave more insight into this phenomenon. When the brain’s “cleanup processes” are sped up or disrupted from cocaine, brain cells are essentially thrown out.
Cocaine damages your brain in other ways, too. Since cocaine causes your blood vessels to narrow, your heart has to work harder to pump blood to your brain.
This stresses your cardiovascular system. It can cause your heart rate to fall out of rhythm. It can also starve your brain of the blood it needs, which kills brain cells.
The impact of cocaine on your brain cells becomes even more significant as you age.
The typical brain loses 1.69 milliliters of gray matter each year as part of the aging process. People who regularly use cocaine lose more than twice that in a year, according to a 2012 study.
Cocaine use in young adults also changes the shape of neurons and synapses as the developing brain tries to protect itself, according to research from 2009.
Effects on Mood, Emotions, and Mental Health
Both freebase (crack) and powdered cocaine can cause long-term damage to mental health, which appears in the form of mood or emotional disturbances. Because the drug directly interferes with dopamine being reabsorbed by neurons, one of the symptoms of a cocaine comedown is serious depression.
If the brain does not reach its original equilibrium then a person who has struggled with cocaine abuse for a long time may develop permanent depression and require ongoing mental health treatment.
Other serious long-term changes to mood and mental health include:
- Auditory hallucinations
People who have an increased potential to develop psychosis or schizophrenia are more likely to trigger this condition if they binge cocaine in powdered or freebase form.
Cocaine increases stress hormones like cortisol in the brain, which can in turn raise blood pressure permanently, damaging the cardiovascular system. Even if the person does not develop psychosis or paranoia, they could develop anxiety, panic disorders, or problems with aggression or violence.
Physical Brain Changes
One of the most serious long-term effects from cocaine abuse is damage to the cardiovascular system. This can lead to damage to many other organ systems, including the brain. A few ways cocaine damages the structure of the brain are outlined below:
- If the linings of the veins and arteries are damaged, it can lead to chronic headaches as blood flow to the brain is restricted.
- That damage can also cause blood clots, which can lead to a stroke.
- The drug can also cause seizures, either during bingeing or chronic abuse, or cause a seizure disorder to develop, which will require long-term treatment.
People who struggle with cocaine addiction also show reduced levels of glucose metabolism in many areas of the brain, suggesting that neurons underperform or begin to die.
Cocaine and Brain Aging
As a person grows older, their brain will naturally change and begin to lose gray matter. In a healthy brain, this is a decades-long process, and it does not appear until a person has reached older adulthood. Memory problems, changes in cognitive ability, and even dementia are linked to reduction of gray matter.
A recent study through the University of Cambridge examined the aging of the brain in people who abused cocaine and those who had no previous history of substance abuse. The group found that the average brain normally loses 1.69 milliliters of gray matter per year; however, people who had abused cocaine in the past, or who were currently cocaine-dependent, doubled the rate of gray matter loss, for an average of 3.08 milliliters per year.
Does the brain recover from the effects of cocaine use?
Your brain may be able to recover from the effects of cocaine use.
The amount of normal cognition you regain will vary depending on several factors, like:
- how long you used cocaine
- how much you used each time
- your individual brain chemistry
A small 2014 study found that as long as cocaine use was moderate and recovery began within 1 year, brain damage from cocaine use was at least partially reversible.
And a 2014 review suggests many of the long-term cognitive effects of cocaine use are actually connected to withdrawal from cocaine. This seemed to imply that 5 months without cocaine would restore much of what was lost in terms of brain function.
There are different treatment options available for people who need help stopping cocaine use.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, outpatient and inpatient treatment, drug-free communities, and 12-step programs (such as Cocaine Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous) are all options.
There’s currently no medication that treats cocaine addiction, but sometimes doctors prescribe drugs off-label to treat it. Disulfiram (Antabuse) is one such medication.
How do doctors diagnose cocaine addiction?
If you reach out to your doctor about your cocaine use, they will start by asking you questions about your lifestyle, habits, usage, and dosage. It’s important to be straightforward and honest so you can get the right treatment.
Sometimes a health event, such as a seizure or stroke, will prompt a doctor to bring up the possibility of cocaine addiction to you if you also have other symptoms.
You doctor may use a drug test to confirm cocaine use. A urine drug test may only test positive for cocaine for about 4 days after last use. But the longer you’ve been using cocaine, the more it can accumulate in your body, and the longer it takes to metabolize.
If a health event prompted your visit to your doctor, they’ll recommend treatment options and help supervise your withdrawal once you’re stable.
What’s the outlook?
It may seem impossible at times, but you can completely recover from your cocaine addiction.
It’s also possible to recover some of the impaired cognitive function from cocaine use.
We don’t completely understand who can regain that function, why, and to what extent. More studies are needed to know what the best practices are for restoring neurological stability after consistent cocaine use.
The bottom line
It’s not just an urban legend meant to scare away potential users. Heavy and prolonged cocaine use can damage your brain cells.
Repeated cocaine use disrupts the way your brain cells communicate, causing neurons to die off. It can also damage other vital organs, including your cardiovascular system.
It may be possible for some people to restore their brain function to what it was before cocaine. Researchers are still working to fully understand this.
If you or a loved one is using cocaine or misusing other substances, reach out to a healthcare provider for help.