What Are The Effects of Cocaine on The Brain?

2 min read · 4 sections
Cocaine—in both powdered and crack form—can cause brain damage over time. Long-term use can cause alterations in brain structures that make it very hard to quit or may cause someone to relapse after long periods of sobriety. Using this potent drug can cause other kinds of long-term health damage as well.

Effects on Mood, Emotions, and Mental Health

Both freebase (crack) and powdered cocaine can cause long-term damage to mental health, which appears in the form of mood or emotional disturbances. Because the drug interferes with dopamine re-uptake, long-term use may alter the brain’s ability to regulate dopamine activity.1

Other serious long-term changes to mood and mental health include:2

  • Auditory hallucinations
  • Restlessness
  • Paranoia
  • Psychosis

Cocaine also increases stress hormones like cortisol in the brain, which may lead to increased distress levels as well as learning and memory dysfunction.3

Physical Brain Changes

The effects of long-term use of drugs like cocaine can cause alterations in the following areas of the brain:4

  • The basal ganglia, which makes up a key part of what researchers often call the brain’s reward circuit. Overactivity in this region of the brain from long-term drug use can diminish someone’s ability to derive pleasure from other activities like eating, socializing, or sex.
  • The extended amygdala, which is involved in feelings of unease such as anxiety and irritability, can become sensitive from repeated drug use. Someone may begin using drugs to escape discomfort caused by sensitivity in this region of the brain instead of getting high.
  • The prefrontal cortex, which is involved in planning, problem solving, and decision making. The long-term effects of drugs on this part of the brain combined with the above regions can reduce someone’s impulse control and make them prioritize drug use over everything else.

Cocaine and Brain Aging

As a person grows older, their brain will naturally change and begin to lose gray matter. In a healthy brain, this is a decades-long process, and it does not appear until a person has reached older adulthood. Memory problems, changes in cognitive ability, and even dementia are linked to reduction of gray matter.

A recent study through the University of Cambridge examined the aging of the brain in people who abused cocaine and those who had no previous history of substance abuse. The group found that the average brain normally loses 1.69 milliliters of gray matter per year; however, people who had abused cocaine in the past, or who were currently cocaine-dependent, doubled the rate of gray matter loss, for an average of 3.08 milliliters per year.5

Another study, conducted by Johns Hopkins University on rodents, suggests that cocaine may cause brain cells to cannibalize themselves. The study describes cocaine triggering autophagy in neurons in mice, or the process of the cells eating themselves from the inside out. The cells threw out useful resources during metabolism, leading to a stress reaction of cannibalizing other internal cell structures.6

Cocaine Addiction Treatment

Fortunately, damage to the brain caused by cocaine addiction is often reversible. Many people are able to quit and lead healthy, fulfilling lives with the help of rehabilitation treatment. Evidence-based practices include behavioral therapy, peer support, and treatment for co-occurring disorders.7

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, get in contact with us by calling or filling in our online insurance verification form below. All information is confidential and there is no obligation to enter treatment.

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