Take the Backdoor: Why Your Brain Can’t Refrain From Cocaine

New research on cocaine leaves several treatment options up in the air.
New research on cocaine leaves several treatment options up in the air.

Ted just snorted two lines of cocaine. If we could see inside his brain, we’d see some pretty alarming results. The blood vessels of Ted’s brain are shrinking and blood flow is restricted, diminishing his ability to think, remember and function. Ted’s now at risk for stroke, seizure and – if too much constriction occurs – death.

As the effects of cocaine spread through Ted’s body, his brain’s chemical messengers start to misfire. These neurotransmitters (norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine) are known as the “reward” or “pleasure” chemicals. Simply put; these neurotransmitters boost Ted’s mood as they build-up, causing a feeling of euphoria or “high.”

Repeated cocaine use alters these transmitters and a tolerance quickly builds up. That means, if Ted wants to feel the same high, he has to do more and more cocaine. The repeated damage to Ted’s brain causes memory loss, learning disabilities, attention deficit issues, to name just a few.

And if you think things get back to normal once the cocaine leaves Ted’s brain, think again. While it’s true the vessel constriction stops, any permanent brain damage has already been done – especially if the narrowing resulted in a stroke.

If Ted seeks help and gets clean, the changes to his brain may or may not heal.

From Voluntary to Compulsive

A recent study gives us more insight into the human brain as it is continually exposed to cocaine, eventually leading to addiction.

With Ted’s first few uses, taking the drug is voluntary. However, the use eventually becomes habitual – a compulsion instead of a planned choice. How? A “back door” in the human brain was recently discovered, suggesting that cocaine can actually rewire the organ and eventually circumvent Ted’s self-control region.

In previous studies, rats were allowed to self-administer cocaine. At first, the drug showed negative effects in the area of the brain that drives goal-directed behaviors. With continued use, however, the activity transferred to the portion of the brain that controls habitual behaviors. And that’s when researchers were able to see that, with prolonged use, a link is created between the pleasure center and the habitual area of the brain – a link that totally circumvents the brain’s prefrontal cortex. But, what does that mean in plain English?

The prefrontal cortex is the part of Ted’s brain that processes information and weighs whether or not it’s a good idea to take the drug. This new pathway (or backdoor) means that, once Ted is addicted, he may not even be aware of his desire to use cocaine. Much like the lab rats, Ted will eventually lose control of his compulsion to “just say no.” He’ll start to respond automatically, continually feeding a cocaine habit that grows by the day.

New Discoveries, New Questions

With the discovery of a neurological backdoor to habitual behaviors, researchers say it’s time rethink our assumptions and treatment options for cocaine addiction. If it’s not an issue of self-control, treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy are basically rendered ineffective because they focus on retraining the prefrontal cortex.


Image Source: iStock

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