Your Brain on Drugs: Studying Cocaine’s Effect on Blood Flow

Cocaine causes a decreased flow of blood to the brain, no matter the frequency of use.

Stimulant drugs like cocaine can cause serious blood flow problems within the brain. When there is an insufficient flow of rich, oxygenated blood to the brain, it can result in aneurysm-like bleeding and strokes.

Researchers have developed a new brain imaging tool that can help them better understand how stimulant drug abuse affects the brain. Developed by a team of researchers from Stony Brook University in New York and the U.S. National Institutes of Health, details of this scientific breakthrough were published in the September issue of The Optical Society’s open-access journal Biomedical Optics Express.

This new imaging technique is actually an advanced version of an existing method known as Optical Coherence Doppler Tomography (ODT). Led by biomedical engineer Yingtian Pan, the team made a few minor adjustments to the ODT method, particularly with the image processing technique. In the end, the new brain mapping technology allowed researchers to capture a much wider range of blood flow speeds.

Cocaine on the Brain

Doctors and researchers are always searching for better ways to understand drugs and their effects on the brain. With these new imaging methods, Pan and his team of neural experts were able to observe exactly how cocaine affects the tiny blood vessels in a mouse’s brain.

Cocaine causes the brain to receive a decreased flow of blood, no matter the frequency of use. Whether the mice received 30 days of chronic cocaine use or two repeated injections of the drug, Pan and his team noted a dramatic drop in blood flow speed. For the very first time, researchers were also able to identify cocaine-induced microischemia brought on by decreased blood flow, which is a classic precursor warning for strokes.

Cocaine and Neurological Blood Flow

Previous research experiments conducted at McLean Hospital in Belmont, New York allowed scientists to watch blood vessels constrict and narrow as volunteers took different amounts of cocaine. The repeated constriction is thought to cause brain dysfunction and physical damage. Other experiments reveal that even thinking about cocaine can change cerebral blood flow.

Looking at the brain of a heavy cocaine user, it’s easy to see that blood flow is sluggish and abnormal compared to the brain of a non-user. These abnormalities are thought to bring on memory loss, learning problems, attention deficit disorders, and strokes.

Researchers hope this imaging breakthrough will eventually lead to better treatment options for recovering drug addicts, improve brain-cancer surgery techniques, and boost tissue engineering.

Learn more about the risks and side effects of drug abuse.

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