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Does Cocaine Kill Brain Cells? How It Works & Its Effects

Cocaine and the brain: The terrible effects of cocaine on the central nervous system

Cocaine, as a drug, is one of the modern scourges of society today. Even though drugs like methamphetamine may have replaced the role that both powdered and freebase cocaine (crack) has in our modern media, cocaine is still a drug that creates immense damage for families. Cocaine is an immense drain on US welfare and quality of life. 

Questions like “how does cocaine kill brain cells?” and “what does cocaine do to the brain?” are paramount If you are a clinician, work in law enforcement, or are a family member impacted by cocaine’s effects. Knowing how the drug works on the brain can help you come to grips with the effects of the drug. 

Mental and emotional effects of cocaine on the brain

How does cocaine affect the brain?

How does cocaine work? Well, when ingested, cocaine has a number of immediate effects on the human brain. What happens to your brain when you do cocaine is as follows:

  • Cocaine users experience an immediate increase in dopamine levels. Cocaine prevents dopamine from being recycled back into nerve cells, which normally shuts down signals between neurons in normal brain function. The pleasure derived from the dopamine that remains between the nerve cells is what creates addiction. However, as the dopamine exposure increases, so too does the tolerance for cocaine, increasing the amount of the drug needed to stay high. 
  • Cocaine users experience increased heart rate, breathing and energy. Blood vessels in the brain and elsewhere constrict. This increases the risk of heart attack, seizure, and stroke in cocaine users. While cocaine users experience euphoria and happiness, paranoia can also increase. Cocaine also increases sensitivity to light and sound, as well as mental alertness. Highs from snorting cocaine last between 15 to 30 minutes, while highs from smoking freebase lasts as little as 5 to 10 minutes, with more intense highs.

Physical brain changes and long-term health effects of cocaine

What does cocaine do to your brain? Continued use of cocaine can cause serious long-term nervous system damage. These include:

  • Damage to veins and arteries inside the brain, which restrict brain flow. Blood clots can appear, indicating increased risk of stroke. This can lead to seizures and other neurological issues.
  • Brain aging: the human brain normally loses 1.69 milliliters of gray matter every year. In a recent study at the University of Cambridge, it was found that former cocaine abusers and current cocaine users lost 3.08 milliliters of gray matter per year.

Why does cocaine affect the brain specifically?

Cocaine brain damage is caused mostly by how cocaine hijacks the dopamine transmission process and by neuron autophagy, which we discuss below. While other body systems can also be affected by cocaine (such as the heart and related cardiac systems), it’s the effect on nerve cells that makes cocaine so dangerous. Cocaine also increases stress hormones in the brain, like cortisol, that can create the feelings of paranoia so famous in cocaine users.

How does cocaine kill brain cells

This seems amazingly self-evident, but when the question is asked, “does cocaine kill brain cells?”  and “can cocaine kill you?” The answer to both questions is emphatically yes.

In recent years, it has been determined that it’s not just the interference with dopamine uptake mechanisms in neurons that destroys brain cells. Another mechanism is at work – neuron autophagy.

Autophagy is a cellular process that normally cleans debris within cells. Membrane-enclosed vacuoles exist to help gather up debris. These “bags” then fuse with enzyme rich lysosomes. Lysosomes contain acids that disintegrate cellular debris and allow cells to safely function.

Cocaine hijacks this process. When affected by cocaine, the vacuoles go crazy, and devour not only debris, but also consume mitochondria and other import cell machinery. Imagine a vacuum cleaner that starts to devour your carpet, furniture, and power chords. This is how cocaine makes brain cells kill themselves. And aside from a few instances, brain cells usually don’t regenerate themselves - cocaine brain damage is usually irreversible. The answer to the question of “can you die from cocaine” is self evident.

Long term effects and recovery

Long term cocaine abuse results in several severe central nervous system issues, including difficulty with emotional regulation, memory loss, seizures,hallucinations and even psychosis.

There are no treatments available currently to treat long term nervous system and brain damage caused by cocaine. Researchers are investigating avenues that involve not only the restoration of dopamine balance but are also looking into experimental treatments that may also assist with balancing other neurotransmitters such as serotonin. The damage that cocaine does involves several brain systems and is complex. 

Management of the withdrawal aspects of cocaine, addictions treatment and psychotherapy support seem to be the only approved treatments for cocaine abuse recovery at this time.

Answering your questions about cocaine and its health effects

Cocaine abuse and addiction are long term problems that family members, health care professionals and law enforcement specialists must deal with. Here at Countrywide Testing, we have a wide array of cocaine drug tests to assist those who are impacted by the effects of cocaine abuse. Contact us so that we can answer your questions.