The Science of Cocaine Addiction
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Cocaine is an incredibly powerful stimulant and is highly addictive. Although different in reach from the current opioid crisis, addiction to cocaine can be just as detrimental for users. In South America, people have chewed on coca leaves, the plant source from which cocaine made, for generations in order to experience the stimulating effects. Cocaine is a short-hand for the synthesized and purified chemical cocaine hydrochloride. A century ago it was used to treat or mask illnesses by creating a sense of euphoria. It was even used as an ingredient in early versions of Coca-Cola ® – hence the name.
However, observation and research showed that over time, cocaine had adverse effects on brain health and function. Moreover, the drug was found to be highly addictive and the cause of debilitating dependencies in its users. For those who are looking to find out more, below is a short explanation of why and how cocaine is addicting and its effects on the body.
The Reward Process
As a stimulant, cocaine works to increase the release of dopamine (DA) in the brain. The brain’s reward system or mesolimbic dopamine system can be stimulated by several different types of chemicals or situations. When we eat or have sex, the brain is stimulated by chemicals and hormones to release DA. Abusive and addictive drugs like coke are also recognized as stimuli in the brain.
Synapses and Neurons
Normally the mesolimbic dopamine system will transfer dopamine from one neuron to the next by releasing it into the synapse (the slight gap between each neuron). The chemical then binds itself to unique proteins called dopamine receptors.
The transfer of the reward chemical acts as a chemical message to the brain, signaling that all is well. After a short time, the DA is then returned or recycled in a process called reuptake where it is sent back to the first neuron via another unique protein called a dopamine transporter.
DA Transfer with Cocaine
When cocaine is introduced into the body, it also acts as a stimulus that encourages the transfer of the reward chemical from neuron to neuron. The major difference is that these kinds of stimulating drugs to intensify the response in two ways.
First cocaine works to transfer more DA into the synapse. The receptors take on more dopamine and intensify the ‘reward’ messaging to the brain. This is what creates the high or euphoric feeling individuals get when they abuse coke.
However, the receiving neuron does not have enough DA receptors to receive the additional dopamine. This causes extra dopamine to amass in the synapse, causing further stimulation and euphoria.
Furthermore, cocaine prevents the DA from being recycled. This is what leads to a dulling of the senses over time. After a while, the reuptake process slows down, and the number of drugs required for the brain to feel rewarded increases as well.
Immediate Effects of Coke Use
The effects of this drug are usually immediately following ingestion and typically last anywhere from several minutes to about one hour depending on the dose and how the individual’s system absorbs the drug. If the drug is absorbed by snorting, the absorption rate is slower and may last as long as 30 minutes. However, if the coke is smoked, it will have a significantly quicker effect but only last up to 10 minutes.
The immediate physiological effects of use may include pupil dilation, body temperature increase, blood vessel constriction, and elevated heart rate. These symptoms can likely lead to violent tendencies, panic, anxiety, and paranoia. Unlike the euphoric feelings of the drugs, these symptoms can be present after the high has worn off.
Long Term Effects of Coke Abuse
While the ingestion of coke can produce a temporary high and sense of euphoria, the physiological consequences are actually the result of more permanent damage to the brain. As stated with the short-term effects, things like irritability, anxiety, and paranoia to name a few will remain, even without the drug. In time, if the drug is still abused, it can lead to a diagnosis of psychotic tendencies like losing touch with reality and hallucinations.
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