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How Cocaine Affects the Brain

The following will be a concise discussion of cocaine use, explaining what the substance is, its effects on the brain, and why it’s a difficult addiction to overcome.

What Is Cocaine?

Mind-altering substances are divided or categorized into different classes according to their effects. While heroin and painkillers are opioids and alcohol is a depressant, cocaine is what’s referred to as a stimulant. Acting prominently on the body’s central nervous system, cocaine has the effect of amplifying or speeding up many functions and processes throughout the body.

The drug notably raises one’s heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature, which can be extremely dangerous when the drug is taken in large amounts. However, cocaine use is typically characterized by binging with individuals using cocaine typically take large quantities intermittently over a very, very short period of time.

In terms of its composition, cocaine is a purified extract from the coca plant and is most often found in the form of white or yellow-tinted powder that can range from exceptionally fine to granulated and chunky to somewhat flakey and similar to the scales of a fish. Cocaine is most often administered by insufflating, or nasally snorting, since the drug is known to pass rapidly through the mucous membrane in the sinus cavity and into the bloodstream.

Alternately, cocaine can be injected in a similar way as heroin or prepared for smoking in its freebase form—known as crack-cocaine due to the sound the drug makes when heat is applied—using processes that often involve baking soda or other adulterants.

The Effects of Cocaine Use on the Brain

Like most other drugs, cocaine has a major effect of levels of neurochemicals in the brain. However, the way that cocaine affects neurochemicals and neurotransmitters in the brain is somewhat different than other drugs. Rather than triggering an increase in the production of chemicals—particularly dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine—cocaine inhibits the reuptake of such chemicals in the brain, preventing them from being reabsorbed and, therefore, causing a spike in levels of such substances.

The functions of the brain’s various neurochemicals number in the hundreds or thousands, but includes such things as communicating with the heart and lungs to ensure their functioning. However, the more well-known function of these substances pertains to areas of the brain referred to as the reward and pleasure pathways.

Over the course of evolution, living organisms evolved to produce certain neurochemicals that would activate particular regions of the brain, bringing them pleasure when they behaved in certain ways and ensuring their survival. According to evolutionary purposes, the behaviors that would trigger the reward and pleasure sentence would include eating, sleeping, and procreating by having intercourse.

Similarly, cocaine causes a spike in neurochemical levels that continue to activate the reward and pleasure centers, reinforcing the behavior and making the use of cocaine particularly addictive. In other words, the spike in levels of neurochemicals in the brain that’s caused by cocaine use serve to reinforce cocaine use.

Although the reward and pleasure pathways are greatly affected by cocaine use and the spike in neurochemicals that it causes, the specific neural systems that make up the reward and pleasure pathways include the ventral tegmental area (VTA) in the midbrain, the nucleus accumbens, and the caudate nucleus. This means that there are a wide variety of bodily functions that are either intensified or desensitized by one’s cocaine use.

The ventral tegmental area is implicated in many emotional processes and motivation with cocaine causing a major increase in one’s awareness, a general increase in energy, and the intensification of one’s emotions. The nucleus accumbens is responsible for learning, pleasure, and motivation with cocaine causing an intense euphoria while also depriving individuals of sleep.

Additionally, the caudate nucleus is involved with both voluntary and involuntary—or reflexive—movement, learning, sleep, social behavior, and memory with cocaine causing such effects as twitching, jitters, an overall antsiness, inability to pay attention, increased heart rate, and possibly even stroke.

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