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Understanding Cocaine’s Effect on the Brain

cocaine's effect on the brain

Cocaine’s effect on the brain has been dubbed a silent disease despite the far-reaching and immediate consequences. It’s not called a silent disease because it does little harm, but rather that those who ingest even small amounts of the substance semi-regularly are doing great harm. Even small cocaine exposures can quickly reduce the amount of oxygen-rich blood reaching the vital neural network of the brain. Cell death quickly follows. Premature aging of the brain can result in early-onset dementia as well as other behavioral, social, and perceptual changes. To prevent these effects, seek out help from a cocaine addiction treatment program today. 

What Is Cocaine?

Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant derived from the leaves of the coca plant. The effects of cocaine as a central nervous system stimulant include short-lived heightened focus and extreme euphoria. The use of the drug can also cause several cardiovascular complications, including:

  • The constriction of blood vessels
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Increased risk of stroke and heart failure

Cocaine is available on the street as a highly refined powder that is water-soluble and injectable or snorted via the nasal passage. Cocaine may also be smoked in the form of crack cocaine. Cocaine’s long-term effects can include damage to grey matter in the brain as well as other structural and biochemical and resulting behavioral changes.

Cocaine’s Immediate Effect on the Brain

When someone first introduces cocaine to their body and brain, the resulting euphoria is intense. Cocaine generates a dopamine response related to the reward centers of the brain and simultaneously increases norepinephrine and serotonin. When the brain releases these chemicals, it leaves a person experiencing a heightened level of focus and concentration. They may also have increased confidence or energy and euphoria associated with the dopamine release.

This high, however, is short-lived, often lasting just 15 minutes, and can perpetuate a cocaine binge. Unfortunately, as someone increases the frequency or the amount of cocaine they are ingesting, their normal brain function begins to shut down. The natural release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin is suppressed as the body becomes dependent on cocaine for similar effects.

Cocaine’s Adverse Effects on the Brain

As abrupt as the effects of cocaine are, cocaine’s adverse impact on the brain is equally swift. New research indicates that the cocaine-addicted brain ages twice the normal brain rate. The loss of grey matter, the vital communication network in the brain, can lead to stroke and early-onset dementia.

Stroke is the result of reduced blood flow to the brain, common among individuals who use cocaine. And recent research at Harvard University shows that even low-level exposure to cocaine can restrict blood flow to the brain. The researchers at Harvard exposed test subjects to relatively low amounts of cocaine compared with what is ordinarily available on the street. They discovered that blood flow constriction occurred in nearly every subject, even at these extremely low doses.

It follows that levels obtainable on the street generate an even more significant adverse impact on brain health, reducing blood flow and vital oxygen to the cells that need it. In most cases, this often results in the death of grey cell matter.

Cocaine’s Impact on Behavioral Controls of the Brain

Cocaine exposure completely rewires areas of the brain’s prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex regulates everything from a person’s personality to cognitive function, decision-making, and behavior. This area of the brain can change or adapt over time as necessary to external stimuli, including stress. Still, when a powerful stimulant like cocaine is introduced, this rewiring can take place in a matter of days and weeks.

This same region of the brain, when altered by cocaine, can turn a moral and sensible individual into a person capable of criminal and violent behaviors. In a healthy individual, the prefrontal cortex regulates decision making and is involved in processes such as:

  • Sorting good thought processes from bad
  • Associating positive action with positive results
  • Avoiding negative consequences by avoiding behaviors or situations that are more like to result in negative consequences

In the cocaine-addicted brain, this highly social and regulated part of the brain becomes chaotic. It may result in violent outbursts, antisocial behaviors, and an inability to associate an action with consequence.

Other Effects of Cocaine on the Brain

Studies have found a correlation between repeated exposure to cocaine generates a wide range of related psychological symptoms in addition to impaired cognitive function, including:

  • Paranoia
  • Social avoidance or withdrawal
  • Severe insomnia
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Delusions and hallucinations
  • Violent outbursts
  • Homicidal or suicidal thoughts or actions

Treat The Addiction, Heal The Addicted Brain

Healing the brain after an addiction to cocaine is one of the greatest challenges to long-term recovery. It can take months for dopamine levels to return to any pre-cocaine exposure levels, resulting in feelings of apathy, lethargy, and general malaise. This is one of the primary reasons for relapse in the first year of recovery.

Cravings for cocaine as well as depression and the symptoms described above can persist for months. Managing these and other withdrawal side effects is one way to improve the long-term success outcome for the cocaine-addicted individual. It can also reduce the overall harm to the brain.

Find Treatment at Vertava Health Today

Vertava Health is proud to offer resources designed to connect you with cocaine addiction treatment options that meet your individual needs and preferences. Let us connect you with the professional support and evidence-based drug treatment programs that can help you reclaim your life from cocaine addiction. 

At Vertava Health, you will find the care and support that you need to manage your addiction.  Our cocaine addiction treatment programs offer comprehensive care that includes:

  • Detox
  • Inpatient cocaine rehab
  • Outpatient cocaine rehab
  • Aftercare planning

We also offer services to help you manage cocaine withdrawal symptoms and support your ongoing recovery. Whether you need outpatient counseling, inpatient cocaine rehab, or a combination of programs to help you manage cocaine addiction, our compassionate and experienced team is here to help. Contact us at 888.601.8693  and discover a new and rewarding life in recovery beginning today.