University of Cambridge

Brain Degeneration is Linked to Cocaine Addiction

Cocaine addiction gained prominence in America during the 1980s and 1990s. However, addiction to the drug is still widespread across the country causing public health implications. Although a person abusing cocaine may exhibit general sense of well-being and act confidently, the drug at times leads to various health problems, sometimes even leading to emergency room visit.

As per the 2013 survey by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH):

  • There were nearly 1.5 million cocaine users aged 12 years or older in the U.S.
  • The rate of cocaine use in 2013 was similar to the survey years 2009-2012 (4-1.7 million) and lower than the rates for 2002-2007 (2-2.4 million).
  • In 2012, 601,000 Americans aged 12 years or older used cocaine for the first time a year prior to the survey.
  • The rate of initiation to cocaine was similar to survey years 2008-2012 and lower than 2002-2007.

Cocaine abuse may lead to premature aging

Cocaine is one of the deadliest substances which is known to create an enormous psychological dependence by stimulating the key pleasure centers in the brain causing a sense of euphoria in the user. Moreover, once addicted to cocaine, the individual develops high levels of tolerance to the drug, thereby experiencing even more powerful cravings for higher amounts of the drug to feed his or her addiction.

Apart from various health-related problems such as cardiovascular diseases, heart attacks and other life-threatening health risks, cocaine use may also alter a person’s judgement and thinking ability, leading to addiction. Precisely, it eats up the brain twice as fast as normal aging. When compared to non-users, cocaine users lose a significant amount of gray matter, responsible for memory, attention and decision-making, in the prefrontal and temporal regions of the brain.

Chronic cocaine users lose grey matter at a significantly faster rate, which could be a sign of premature aging,” said Karen Ersche of the Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge and co-author of a 2012 study on brains of habitual cocaine users, which was published in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry.

Need to educate young people about risk of premature aging

In the 2012 study, K.D. Ersche and her colleagues from Cambridge University showed that a consistent use of cocaine shrinks the brain. Using brain imaging, the researchers studied the gray matter volume of 120 individuals in the age-group of 18-50 years, half of whom were habitually addicted to cocaine. As expected, both the groups showed decline in gray matter attributed to the age factor, but cocaine-dependent users showed a twofold degeneration rate as compared to the others who did not use cocaine.

According to the researchers, those addicted to cocaine lost approximately 3 cc of the total gray matter volume on a yearly basis as compared to a loss of 1.6 cc per year for individuals who were not dependent on cocaine. It was also observed that the deeper regions of the brain, such as the striatum, were less affected by cocaine dependency.

Young people taking cocaine today need to be educated about the long-term risk of aging prematurely,” said Ersche. The results remained unchanged even after removing 16 participants who were also addicted to alcohol, apart from cocaine. Studies conducted on animals suggested that cocaine-related brain degeneration may be related to oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress is caused by the production of unstable molecules called reactive oxygen species; when the body can’t remove these molecules or repair the damage they cause; disease can result,” said Ersche.

Leading a drug-free life is possible

Any kind of addiction, if left untreated, may aggravate with time. So, it is necessary to take proper measures to address the problem at the earliest.

Follow us