Cocaine Brain – Studies Show Brain Alterations in Users

May 5, 2015

People who are addicted to cocaine may have a completely different brain function than people who are not hooked on the substance or who have never tried it.

Researchers from the University of Galveston discovered that people who are addicted to cocaine have brains that function and communicate in various ways compared to the average human brain. The study authors discovered that these functions can lead to people acting more impulsively. The findings were published in the journal Neuroimage: Clinical.

A desirable effect

Cocaine is often snorted or inhaled by people, and can cause feelings of excitement and happiness and give people energy. The drug enters the central nervous system and releases more dopamine than normal in the brain, causing people to have pleasurable feelings. It can also increase people’s heart rate and their blood pressure. These feelings do not last long, which cause people to desire to take the drug continuously over a short period of time. As a result, people become addicted to the drug as they begin to take larger amounts of it to have the same experience.

For years, studies have proven that those dealing with cocaine addiction tended to act more impulsively and do not think before their actions. They usually have little thought of the consequences of their ill-minded behavior. As a result, they are more likely to relapse because of a lack of self-control. So, the researchers wanted to look into why cocaine users act so impulsively.

“While the performances were relatively equal, the brain function was not.”

Research involving impulsivity will usually use the Go/No Go task, which measures how well someone can control a natural response. Usually people will say “Go” when they view one certain image and “No go” when they see others. The Galveston researchers wanted to see whether participants would act differently than the standard subject in the test. They also wanted to investigate whether brain function was altered or abnormal.

Usually scientists will study the brain using magnetic resonance imaging. Well, the researchers in this study wanted to do the same, but decided to tweak it. They studied what parts of the brain were communicating with each other and in what order in both cocaine users and non-users. This scientific technique is known as Dynamic Casual Modeling. The hope is that by studying these finer details of brain function in people with cocaine addiction, scientists may be able to determine a treatment that will bring brain function back to normal.

Cocaine Brain – A difference in function

To test their theories, the researchers used 13 people addicted to cocaine and 10 participants who did not use cocaine. Both groups were tested on brain function using the Go/No Go task while being hooked up to an fMRI scanner. The findings revealed that participants in both groups were able to perform the test equally, noting that the response to the task at hand was understood across the board. However, while the performances were relatively equal, the brain function was not. People who abused cocaine had different brain communication than the other group. Certain parts of the brain communicated more strongly than other parts during tasks.

“While some cortical brain regions show altered activity in cocaine users, other regions may compensate for cocaine-associated deficits in function,” lead study author Kathryn A. Cunningham, Ph.D, noted. “Targeting altered brain connections in cocaine use disorder for therapeutic development is a fresh idea, offering a whole new arena for research and the potential to promote abstinence and prevent relapse in these vulnerable individuals.”

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