How Does Cocaine Affect the Brain?

Most drug users take drugs to gain some kind of psychological or neurological effect. This makes sense because why would someone continually abuse drugs, to the point of addiction, if they are not gaining some type of pleasurable or numbing effect? Unfortunately, continued use of a drug, like cocaine, will eventually build tolerance within the physical body and the brain. This tolerance to the drug means that the drug user must take in more and more of the drug in order to obtain close to the same results they have experienced in the past. The science of how drugs like cocaine affect the human brain sheds light on why you or someone you know continues to use drugs, even if you want to stop.

Normal Brain Function

Have you ever wondered why we continue to eat to survive? It seems like a trick question, but it really has to do with the limbic system of the brain. The limbic system controls pleasure, and it prompts us to repeat certain aspects of our existence in order to further that existence. Eating is one of those pleasurable activities that the limbic system of our brain encourages us to repeat. The limbic system is also responsible for our emotions, like grief and happiness. This part of the brain is central to drug abuse and addictive behaviors.

The limbic system is located in the center of the brain and surrounded by two other parts of the brain that are necessary for our survival. For instance, the brain stem (located in the back of the brain at the top of the spinal cord) controls those activities over which we have very little control. The beat of our hearts, the movement of our lungs, the blood circulating in our veins and arteries, and even the desire and need to sleep are all controlled by the brain stem.

Finally, the cortex of our brain interprets our senses. The ability to touch something and register what it feels like, the ability to see, hear and taste are all controlled by the cortex of the brain. The front portion of the cortex, located in the most forward part of the brain, makes us who we are. This is the part of the brain that allows us to think clearly and make rational decisions. It allows us to plan for both long-term and short-term goals.

Each part of the human brain communicates with other parts of the brain, as well as with the nervous system in general. When the various parts of the brain communicate correctly, the brain controls everything, from how we feel to the decisions we make. When the brain does not communicate properly, we make bad decisions and are unable to feel appropriate emotions.

Cocaine and Brain Chemistry

When considering the effects of drugs compared to how the brain functions normally, it is important to understand just how the parts of the brain talk to each other. The brain is made up of several parts:

  • Neurons
  • Transmitters or neurotransmitters
  • Receptors
  • Transporters

In between each neuron is a synapse. The synapse is a space between two neurons that allows for the transfer of electrical impulses. If we think of the synapse as a free space where action takes place, we can think of the neuron like a balloon.

The neurons create dopamine and release it into the synapse. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for emotional reactions, movement and, most importantly for our purposes here, the acknowledgment of pleasure and pain. When a neuron releases dopamine into the synapse, the intention is for the dopamine receptors of the neighboring neuron to pick up the message. This firing of the neurons tells our body that we feel good or that we feel pain. The leftover dopamine in the synapse is then captured by dopamine transporters in the brain which cause it to be reabsorbed into the original neuron and stored for the next time we need it.

Cocaine is a central nervous system stimulant that reacts with the neurons, specifically those concerning dopamine and the absorption of dopamine back into the neuron of origin. Once cocaine is ingested, the chemicals will attach themselves to the dopamine transporters, basically blocking the absorption of dopamine back into the neuron. The original neuron will continue to produce and release dopamine, and the receiving neuron will continue to take in as much dopamine as it can handle, but an overflow of dopamine exists in the synapse. This is what makes the cocaine user experience the high they are seeking.

Cocaine and Brain Damage

The human brain is a highly complex organ. It is designed to work in a very specific way, with checks and balances for each of the systems. When we introduce chemicals to the brain that don’t belong there, effectively clogging the works of a finely tuned machine, damage is inevitable.

The extent of brain damage is often determined by the length of time and the amount of cocaine that an individual takes throughout the course of their addiction. One important item to note concerning cocaine is the increased likelihood of relapse, even after long periods of sobriety. Simply remembering the experience of using cocaine is enough for some recovering addicts to use the drug again. This is indicative that damage has occurred in the part of the brain that controls decision-making skills – the cortex.

Another form of brain damage occurs when the brain no longer remembers how to receive dopamine on its own. The addict may find himself unable to enjoy everyday pleasures, essentially becoming numb to the world around him. This can occur early in the addiction as tolerance to cocaine develops. The brain essentially becomes used to the drug and does not function properly on its own. It is important to note that the brain does not function properly with the drug, either, as indicated by the blocking of the dopamine transporters.

Finally, it is possible, with continued use of cocaine, to damage the brain even more extensively. Because cocaine is often ingested in binges, where a cocaine user will take in large quantities of the drug in a short period of time, serious psychological effects can occur. The brain will experience panic, paranoia and even psychosis with extended use. The addict may suffer hallucinations and may not have a true concept of reality. The more an individual binges on cocaine, the more likely these adverse effects and damage to the brain will occur.

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The Risk of Aneurysm for Cocaine Users

An aneurysm is a weakening of a blood vessel where a balloon-like nodule forms in a part of the body. Cocaine users are far more likely to suffer from coronary aneurysms than the general population, and these dangerous developments can also form in the brain.

Aneurysms are formed though a variety of causes. The use of cocaine weakens the blood vessels in the heart and the brain, and this weakening can cause aneurysms to form. The danger involved in any type of aneurysm is the possibility that the “balloon” will break and the aneurysm will begin to bleed. Continued use of cocaine increases the chances that an aneurysm will burst.

When an aneurysm begins to bleed into the brain tissue, the results can be mild to severe. For instance, an individual may:

  • Experience a headache that can last for days
  • Suffer a stroke
  • Fall into a coma
  • Experience seizures

There is no way to tell when an aneurysm will burst. While increased drug use can be a factor, it is possible that overexertion of any kind can also influence the outcome. The risks of cocaine use are multiplied because not only will the chemicals of cocaine continue to weaken the blood vessels, but the irritability and panic associated with heavy cocaine use can also cause an aneurysm to bleed.

Cocaine is highly addictive and there is no telling how quickly or how severely an individual may begin to suffer from tolerance leading to addiction. If you or someone you know uses cocaine in any capacity, it is important to seek help as quickly as possible to mitigate the long-term effects on the brain. Here at Alta Mira, we can help you recover from a cocaine addiction before it does serious damage to your brain. Call now.