How Does Cocaine Affect The Brain?
Cocaine is a stimulant, which means that it makes the nervous system operate faster. Regular brain functions will amplify, their natural effects seeming more intense. Cocaine works by interfering with the brain’s mesolimbic pathway often referred to as the reward pathway (1). We involve the reward pathway any time we experience something enjoyable. Eating our favorite meal, achieving a goal, physical intimacy – these all activate our brain’s reward pathway. Think of it this way: anything that gives you pleasure, or makes you feel good, involves this part of your brain. The reward pathway also regulates our motivations; the reasons we have for doing things. Additionally, it helps us keep our emotions stable.
When we want something, or when something interests us, our brain produces dopamine. Dopamine propels us toward what we want; it motivates us to pursue that thing, person, experience, or feeling that we’re after. Moreover, dopamine tells our brain when something pleases us. Inside our brain, dopamine flows across a gap between two neurons. This gap is referred to as a synapse. Cocaine prevents the flow of dopamine between different neurons, leaving it stuck in the synapses of the brain. This heightens a user’s feeling of pleasure, creating euphoria (2).
Cocaine also disrupts the function of one of the brain’s most important neurotransmitters – glutamate. Glutamate is significant because it assists your nerve cells (neurons) with performing their specific functions (memory, movement, hearing, vision, etc.). With an appropriate amount of glutamate in your brain, your neurons communicate just as they should. But cocaine causes the brain to make more glutamate than normal. Too much glutamate creates a condition called excitotoxicity. When the brain makes too much glutamate, it can damage (and even kill) your neurons. Consequently, a long-term user of cocaine might experience memory loss, partial deafness or blindness, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, etc.
Cocaine and Mental Health
But how might these changes in the brain affect mental and emotional health? In research studies, animals exposed to cocaine are likely to want it when they experience stress (3). The way we respond to stress trains our brain to make that response automatic. So, a user’s brain may respond to stress by craving cocaine for its new “normal” functioning. Since cocaine is a stimulant, some users might notice that they don’t need to eat or sleep. Quality nutrition and adequate sleep are keystones in maintaining mental wellness. Users might also experience more anxiety and paranoia. Panic attacks, irritability, and even auditory hallucinations can occur. For a person who already suffers from an anxiety disorder (panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, OCD, etc.), cocaine makes symptoms even worse. Over time, these effects can deplete the body’s ability to heal, which will further aggravate any stressors that already exist. For a user of cocaine, this creates a battle on multiple fronts.
Is Help Available?
Physical health is not the only thing that cocaine compromises. It takes a toll on a user’s mental health as well. However, help is available, without question. No one is too far gone to seek treatment. At Recovery In Tune, we believe in treatments that offer relief to the whole person. Call us now at 1-844-7-IN-TUNE for more information.