What is Cocaine?
We’ve discussed cocaine previously on the Lakeside-Milam blog. Humans have used and abused this substance for thousands of years. A naturally occurring plant, coca, produces leaves with psychoactive properties. When humans chewed these leaves – or extracted them into a fine powder – they realized that cocaine affected the brain in significant ways.
What Does Cocaine Do to Your Brain?
Like methamphetamine and caffeine, cocaine is a stimulant. This means that users report higher levels of energy, euphoria, and even increased confidence. But to truly understand how cocaine affects the brain, we must look at the microscopic actions behind neural processes.
The brain works through neural communication. Cells called neurons release molecules called neurotransmitters, which cross the synapse (a gap between two neurons) to attach to a neighboring cell. Neurotransmitters attach by fitting into certain receptors. After contact has been made, the releasing cell takes them back in a process called “reuptake.” This allows the cell to either reuse or break down the neurotransmitter.
When we talk about addiction, one of the most common neurotransmitters we discuss is dopamine. It is the primary molecule responsible for the brain’s reward system. Cocaine affects the reuptake process; it stops the releasing cell from recycling dopamine. As a result, the neurotransmitter builds to much higher levels than it normally would.
Here’s how that affects you in the short term and over years of continued use.
Short-Term Side Effects
The short-term side effects of cocaine are what most drug users seek. Within a few minutes, people experience higher levels of energy and alertness. They may also report sky-high confidence. However, even in the short term, use may cause paranoia, extreme sensitivity (to light, noises, and touch), and irritability.
The long-term damage caused by cocaine cannot be understated. First, the brain will acclimate to increased levels of dopamine. The body naturally compensates by reducing the number of receptors available for this neurotransmitter – this results in two consequences:
- Loss of motivation and ability to feel pleasure, and
- Higher chances of depression and low mood when not high.
These symptoms are only the tip of the iceberg. Continued substance abuse may cause damage to the very structures of one’s brain.
Cocaine abuse can damage the arteries and veins of the brain, leading to decreased blood flow. This causes migraines, headaches, blood clots, and even strokes or seizures.
Grey Matter Reduction
Additionally, research shows that cocaine reduces the amount of grey matter in the brain; while this happens naturally over time, it is accelerated and worsened for people on this drug. Those on this stimulant lose it twice as fast as their peers. That “brain shrink” – premature aging – comes with memory issues and eventual dementia.
Higher Levels of Stress
Cocaine also increases the production of stress hormones, increasing symptoms like anxiety and psychosis (hallucinations and delusions). Studies have found that animals that have consumed cocaine repeatedly are predisposed to seek the drug in response to stressful events.
Decision-Making and Executive Functioning
Further animal studies have uncovered the impact of cocaine on the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). The stimulant decreases functioning in this area, causing people to make worse decisions, become unable to acclimate to negative consequences of substance use, and lack self-insight.
Cocaine Addiction and Withdrawal Symptoms
Using any psychoactive substance over time can eventually result in a dependence. The body gets used to a certain level of cocaine in the system. This adaptation is the reason that someone becomes reliant on the drug. That same action causes tolerance – because the body expects a specific amount of the drug, it struggles to function with less than the required dose.
This does not even take psychological associations into account. The low mood caused by the reduction of dopamine receptors can prompt repeated use at stronger dosages. Additionally, cocaine becomes a coping mechanism; someone may turn to this drug in an effort to combat stress, enjoy a party, or boost their energy. Eventually they rely on drugs to navigate most situations in life.
Cocaine is a fast-acting substance. The high from snorting the drug in its powder form only lasts for between 15 and 30 minutes on average. If a person smokes crystalline cocaine (crack), their high will probably only last for about five to 15 minutes. This means that a person must continue to use again and again to sustain the intense, short-lived high they seek, which increases the potential for abuse, addiction, and even overdose.
Symptoms of Cocaine Overdose
Cocaine use elevates a person’s blood pressure and heart rate. Signs of an overdose include a rise in body temperature, pounding heart, anxiety, panic, nausea, and vomiting. Polysubstance abuse is common, which means that some overdoses are caused by an interaction between cocaine and another substance (frequently prescription painkillers).
Those exhibiting the above symptoms are at risk for a stroke, seizure, or heart attack. If you believe that someone you love has developed a dependence on this drug, or if you’re worried about your own cocaine use, help is available.
Help for Substance Use Disorder in Washington State
At Lakeside-Milam, we understand how quickly a cocaine addiction can develop. If you need help to overcome a substance use disorder, we are here for you every step of the way. Our qualified counselors offer the full continuum of care, and our outpatient addiction and mental health services are available all across the state of Washington.
To learn more about our cocaine addiction treatment program, contact our admissions office.