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Heavy Cocaine Use Causes the Brain to Eat Itself

How Heavy Cocaine Use Causes the Brain to Eat Itself

Author: Shernide Delva

By now, we know that cocaine addiction is a real and harmful thing. However, most of us probably were not aware of how much damage cocaine truly has on our brain cells. In fact, a new study conducted at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine reveals that high levels of cocaine can cause the brain to eat itself like an internal cannibal.

Just thinking about this phenomenon is crazy enough, but the fact that this could be occurring in someone’s brain due to high level cocaine use is even crazier. Researchers found in several studies that out of control cocaine use in mice triggered “autophagy.” Autophagy is a process in which cells digest themselves when they are no longer functioning. However, heavy cocaine use totally changes this entire process and turns it upside down.

Before we delve any further, let’s look at some of the already known effects of cocaine use to gain some perspective.  Cocaine is a powerful nervous system stimulant. The effects of cocaine can last from 15 minutes to up an hour depending on the dosage and how it is administered.

Because cocaine only lasts a short period of time, often users increase their dosage or continue to use cocaine repeatedly when the effects start to wear off. This makes the risk for a cocaine addiction to be very high. In addition, cocaine overdoses happen rapidly and can come without warning.

Cocaine Overdose Signs and Symptoms:

  • Racing pulse
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever – hypothermia due to increased muscle activity
  • Respiratory failure
  • Stroke
  • Cardiac arrest – leading to sudden death
  • Brain injury – can be permanent
  • Death

Cocaine Brain Damage

As you can see from above, brain damage from cocaine was already known, however this new research discovers that the body’s natural physiological process of destroying cells is completely disturbed by heavy cocaine use. See, our bodies get rid of cells through destroying the ones that are already dead to make room for new cell formation. When properly regulated, autophagy is essentially a maid service in our brains. The maid comes in and cleans out all the dead garbage and makes way for the new cells coming in.  The unwanted cells, debris and protein are dissolved away by enzymes within the cell.

That’s all cool and dandy, until the brain starts to receive high doses of cocaine. Eventually, this natural autophagy process does not work the way it should.  Researchers found that autophagy was occurring in brain cells that should not have been thrown away. It’s as if the maid started throwing away your important valuables like your laptop and furniture alongside  the garbage they were supposed to throw away. Definitely not ideal at all.

Dr. Prasun Guha led the research team and published the results of the study in the National Academy of Sciences. He went on to explain the process in scientific terms:

“Autophagy is the housekeeper that takes out the trash—it’s usually a good thing. But cocaine makes the housekeeper throw away really important things, like mitochondria, which produce energy for the cell.”

Overall, heavy cocaine use can eventually lead to really bad processes to occur in the brain that destroys valuable cells. The good news is that there is an antidote that can potentially help combat these effects.  A drug compound dubbed CGP3466B has already been tested to treat Parkinson’s and motor neuron disease. Now, the same compound is predicted to help treat this cocaine effect as well. More research is needed to find out if this drug compound can really help in preventing the harmful effects of cocaine in people.

Co-author Dr. Maged Harraz, also from Johns Hopkins University, elaborated further:

“Since cocaine works exclusively to modulate autophagy versus other cell death programs, there’s a better chance that we can develop new targeted therapeutics to suppress its toxicity.”

The most important insight gained from this study is a better understanding of why so many cocaine addicts have trouble in the early stages of recovery. The results of this research can eventually help clinicians develop a more effective treatment plan for cocaine addiction.

Learning the effects of drug abuse is to give those in recovery better understanding of the harmful effect their addiction had on their health. If you are struggling from cocaine addiction or any other addiction, the time is now to get treatment before your body faces anymore damage.

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