Cocaine and the Ultimate Battle of Neurons

How can you really control the urge to use cocaine once you're addicted?
How can you really control the urge to use cocaine once you're addicted?

Sean was ready to give up. His brother, Tony, seemed to be a lost cause. After years of cocaine use, Tony had been through three rehab programs and countless relapses. Each time, Sean hoped for the best, only to have his hopes crushed by cocaine. At the end of his rope, Sean confronted Tony:

“Why do you keep doing this? Can’t you see it’s killing you? And it’s killing me to see you do it?”

“Yes, I can see that. What I can’t do is stop myself. The cocaine keeps pulling me back. I just…can’t…fight it.”

Battle of the Neurons

What Sean doesn’t realize is the literal truth behind Tony’s statements. It’s likely Tony’s brain really is drawn back to the cocaine; his urges have grown stronger and stronger over time, until it feels impossible to do anything but follow them.

Here’s what we’d see if we took a peek into Tony’s brain:

Tony’s brain (and yours) has two types of neurons that are influencing his behavior. The first is a “dopamine receptor type one neuron” a.k.a. “urge neuron.” The second is – you guessed it – a “dopamine receptor type two neuron.” The second is also referred to as a “control neuron.”

As you can guess by the nicknames, the two neurons have opposite effects. The urge neurons promote feelings of reward and encourage behaviors that involve rewarding experiences. The control neurons dampen reward feelings. They discourage behaviors associated with negative experiences.

Working together, these neurons are designed to promote healthy choices. They act in balance to encourage activity that is good for Tony and discourage activities that are bad for him.

Enter Cocaine

Researchers discovered that adding cocaine to this neuron interaction throws the system off balance. It completely disrupts the dynamic and changes Tony’s brain.

With his first dose of cocaine, we would see Tony’s urge neurons increase in activity and the control neurons decrease. The balance shifts for a bit, but it is restored after a few minutes. After many doses of cocaine, this imbalance doesn’t go away like it used to. Over time, with continued use, the imbalance lasts longer and the urge neurons dominate Tony’s brain. The control neurons, which should encourage him to stop the negative behavior, are no longer in control. Their voices have been silenced by repeated boosting of the urge neurons. They are now constantly screaming at Tony for more cocaine.

This situation is seen again and again in the brains of every cocaine user. The cocaine is consumed. There is an urge to take more of the drug. There is less and less ability to control this urge. Once cocaine is used over a long period of time, the imbalance becomes sustained. Cocaine use takes over the brain and results in uncontrolled use and addiction.

Hope for Tony

Does this mean cocaine addicts are beyond help, as Sean suspects? No. Far from it. It simply means it will be a hard road ahead as they work to rewire their brains. Loved ones should keep in mind it’s more than “just saying no.” Those struggling with cocaine addiction need the right treatment and support to break free from this cycle. With time and treatment, Tony can restore the balance to his brain. He can quiet the urge neurons and enjoy a life in recovery.

Image Source: iStock

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