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Cocaine Could Mess With Your Brain’s Ability to Recognize Sadness and Fear

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Cocaine is a stimulant drug with a reputation for making people more social, but in reality, it tends to make users paranoid and insufferable. And according to a new study, this may be in part because people who use cocaine are less capable of reading social cues.

Researchers contend that using the Schedule I drug, even just once, may affect your ability to recognize other people’s negative emotions, like sadness and anger.

The Disappearance of Emotional Recognition

Researchers from Germany and The Netherlands studied the behavior of 24 students, aged 19 through 27, who considered themselves “light to moderate” cocaine users. Subjects were given either a placebo or a single dose of 300 milligrams of cocaine.

One-to-two hours later, the participants were asked to complete a facial recognition test that measured their response to a different set of emotions, including happiness, sadness, anger, disgust and fear.

Researchers found that the subjects who were on cocaine were 10 percent less likely to recognize negative emotions, like sadness or fear, than those who had taken a placebo.

“This might hinder the ability to interact in social situations, but it may also help explain why cocaine users report higher levels of sociability when intoxicated—simply because they can’t recognize the negative emotions,” said lead researcher Dr. Kim Kuypers of the Maastricht University in The Netherlands.

Stimulant Drugs and Emotional Cues

This latest data from the Netherlands’ study could explain why cocaine users, though they might feel good, can often rub people the wrong way without even realizing it.

In particular, the participants who were given cocaine had a very hard time identifying low-intensity anger and high-intensity sadness compared to when they were sober. In other words, they could tell if someone was extremely angry or slightly sad, but not when they were seriously sad or just a little angry.

Researchers also found that the subjects who had taken cocaine had an increased heart rate and higher levels of cortisol, the hormone that regulates how the body responds to stress.

Small Study, Large Implications

Though the Netherlands study is small, it could have further implications for the research of people with mental illnesses, like depression or schizophrenia, who may have a decreased ability to recognize other people’s emotions.

“There are many mental illnesses in which our brains’ ability to recognise the emotions of others are impaired and this new study shows that cocaine may interfere with this process too,” said Dr Michael Bloomfield, of the University College, London.

Dr Bloomfield also questioned whether cocaine could exacerbate these mental illnesses by impacting how a user reads social cues, even when they are no longer under the influence.

“We know that cocaine is a powerful and addictive drug and an important question remains: does cocaine mess up this process so that when cocaine users are off the drug they feel like other people have more negative emotions?”



Additional Reading: 5 Telltale Signs of a High-Functioning Addict


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