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Cocaine Effects On The Brain, Does Cocaine Kill Brain Cells?

How Does Cocaine Affect The Brain? Cocaine and Neurotransmitters. Why Does Cocaine Specifically Affect Your Brain? Psychological Effects of Cocaine. Cocaine Can Kill Cells In Your Brain.

How Does Cocaine Affect The Brain?

It is widely known that cocaine is an addictive stimulant, but not everyone understands how it works; how it produces its effects, and how individuals become addicted to it. The interactions between cocaine and the brain are well understood by scientists, thanks to effective research, and so science is able to answer these questions.

Cocaine Effects On The Brain – Cocaine & Neurotransmitters 

Cocaine use interferes with and actually changes how the brain normally functions. Specifically, the drug acts on the brain’s reward system, a system in which certain neurotransmitters are affected. Dopamine is one of the primary neurotransmitters in this process. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) [1], a normal dopamine communication in the brain goes like this: dopamine is released into the synapse by a neuron. There it binds to dopamine receptors and sends a signal to the neuron that it is bound. It is then removed from the synapse – because of the signal – and is recycled for further use. Cocaine interferes with that exact process.

Cocaine interacts with norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, three very important neurotransmitters. It blocks the reuptake of these chemicals in the brain by binding to the transporters that usually remove the excess neurotransmitters from the synaptic gap. This basically prevents them from being reabsorbed, and instead, their concentration is higher than usual in the synapses. Dopamine is implicated in the serotonin-producing feelings of confidence, and the development of dependency and norepinephrine interacts with energy levels.

Having a higher concentration of dopamine intensifies the neurotransmitter’s natural effect – which is to recognize pleasure and reward. Dopamine is involved in the unconscious memorization of pleasurable, rewarding signs and actions, and the way cocaine interacts with it tricks the brain into thinking that cocaine is good, or is a reward and something to seek out. A study shows that the nucleus accumbens, part of the limbic system, is the most important site of cocaine high [2].

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Why Does Cocaine Specifically Affect Your Brain?

Cocaine is a stimulant. That means it affects the central nervous system. Like other stimulants, cocaine gives you an energy surge. That in turn boosts your alertness, leaving you feeling a “high” from the drug. Cocaine increases the amount of a chemical called dopamine in your brain. Dopamine naturally occurs in your brain. Small doses of dopamine travel through your brain cells to indicate pleasure or satisfaction. When you’re using cocaine, dopamine floods your brain cells, but then it doesn’t have anywhere else to go. This excess dopamine blocks your brain cells from communicating with one another.

Over time, cocaine causes your brain to become less sensitive to dopamine. That means larger amounts of cocaine are necessary to produce the same effects of a dopamine high. Flooding your brain with dopamine can damage the structure of the brain. That’s why heavy cocaine use can lead to seizure disorders and other neurological conditions. Cocaine use slows the glucose metabolism in your brain as well. That can cause the neurons in your brain to work more slowly or begin to die off.

Cocaine Effects On The Brain
Psychological effects of cocaine use include symptoms like compulsive behavior and loss of pleasure and motivation.

When the brain’s “cleanup processes” are sped up or disrupted by cocaine, brain cells are essentially thrown out. Cocaine damages your brain in other ways, too. Since cocaine causes your blood vessels to narrow, your heart has to work harder to pump blood to your brain. This stresses your cardiovascular system. cocaine can cause your heart rate to fall out of rhythm. It can also starve your brain of the blood it needs, which kills brain cells.

The impact of cocaine on your brain cells becomes even more significant as you age. The typical brain loses 1.69 milliliters of gray matter each year as part of the aging process. People who regularly use cocaine lose more than twice that in a year. Cocaine use in young adults also changes the shape of neurons and synapses as the developing brain tries to protect itself.

Cocaine Effects On The Brain – Physical Brain Changes 

One of the most serious long-term effects of cocaine addiction is damage to the cardiovascular system. This can lead to damage to many other organ systems, including the brain. A few ways cocaine damages the structure of the brain are indicated below:

  • If the linings of the arteries and veins are damaged, it can lead to chronic headaches as blood flow to the brain is restricted.
  • That damage can also cause blood clots, which can lead to a stroke.
  • Cocaine can also cause seizures, either during bingeing or chronic abuse, or cause a seizure disorder to develop, which will need long-term treatment.

Individuals who struggle with cocaine addiction also show reduced levels of glucose metabolism in many areas of the brain, suggesting that neurons underperform or begin to die.

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Psychological Effects of Cocaine 

What are the immediate psychological effects of cocaine use? The reason many people abuse cocaine initially is for its favorable psychological effects. For instance, the drug causes the body and brain’s functions to speed up, making it easier for the user to increase their activity and get more done. However, this can backfire as abusing cocaine can also easily cause distraction in the user.

Other psychological effects of the drug include:

  • Increased wakefulness and alertness
  • A feeling of euphoria
  • Enhanced self-esteem
  • A decrease in appetite
  • A feeling of exhilaration

For many of these reasons, individuals abuse this drug in order to control and diminish the need for certain behaviors (like eating and sleeping) or to feel happier and get high. However, the immediate effects of cocaine are not all beneficial. Along with those effects that cause people to abuse the drug in the first place, users will also experience:

  • Confusion
  • Paranoia
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness

There is no way to know for sure how long the desired effects will last before a cocaine high turns and the user begins experiencing cocaine’s adverse effects. Many of the enjoyable aspects of cocaine will also become problematic, even during a person’s first use. For instance, if someone takes the drug to stay awake, they might experience insomnia and be unable to sleep for much longer than they originally intended. 

Paranoia and anxious feelings can also sour the euphoria caused by the drug, and there is no way to be certain when this will occur. In addition, a person will likely experience some type of withdrawal from the drug after using it, even the first time. After the ‘high’ wears off, you can ‘crash’ and feel tired and sad for days.” This also happens because many cocaine abusers take the drug in large amounts, binging on it until they have to stop. This makes the crash and cocaine withdrawal symptoms much more intense.

Even after one use, the psychological effects of cocaine can be intense. Unfortunately, many individuals want to feel the same initial rush the drug gave them, so they continue abusing it, which will only lead to more problems.

Long-term Psychological Effects of Cocaine Use

Over time, cocaine abuse causes more side effects on the brain and the way it works. With repeated exposure to cocaine, the brain starts to adapt, and the reward pathway becomes less sensitive to natural reinforcers and to the drug itself. Tolerance may develop––this means that higher doses and/or more frequent use of cocaine are needed to register the same level of pleasure experienced during initial use.

Other long-term psychological effects of cocaine include:


  • Irritability can become a lingering issue for those who use cocaine often. This occurs as the result of cocaine high but also because the individual will not be able to feel pleasure to the same degree they once did, even when taking the drug.
Cocaine Effects On The Brain
Cocaine primarily affects a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which plays an important role in the brain’s reward and reinforcement systems. 


  • A person can experience psychosis after abusing this drug for a long time. Hallucinations may occur (specifically those of bugs burrowing under the skin), and the individual may become extremely hostile or violent toward others. Homicidal and suicidal tendencies can develop, and the user may require serious mental health treatment in a residential facility.

Severe cocaine withdrawal symptoms

  • When a person experiences withdrawal whenever they are unable to take the drug, this is a sign of psychological dependence on cocaine. Users may continue using cocaine simply to relieve these effects of withdrawal, which can include depression, anxiety, fatigue, and a severe craving for the drug.

Mental disorders

  • A person can develop severe depression or anxiety issues as a result of long-term cocaine abuse. It can also intensify these disorders in someone who already has them.

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Cocaine Can Kill Cells In Your Brain 

This seems self-evident, but when the question is asked, “does cocaine kill brain cells?” and “can cocaine kill you?” The answer to both questions is yes. In recent years, it has been determined that it’s not just the interference with dopamine uptake mechanisms in neurons that destroys brain cells. Another mechanism is at work – neuron autophagy.

Autophagy is a cellular process that normally cleans debris within cells. Membrane-enclosed vacuoles exist to help gather up debris. These “bags” then fuse with enzyme-rich lysosomes. Lysosomes contain acids that disintegrate cellular debris and allow cells to safely function.

Cocaine hijacks this process. When affected by cocaine, the vacuoles go crazy and devour not only debris but also consume mitochondria and other import cell machinery. Imagine a vacuum cleaner that starts to devour your carpet, furniture, and power chords. This is how cocaine makes brain cells kill themselves. And aside from a few instances, brain cells usually don’t regenerate themselves – cocaine brain damage is usually irreversible. 

Cocaine Damages the Structure of Your Brain

A new study has indicated that long-term cocaine use may produce changes to the parts of the brain responsible for regulating impulsivity and the ability to analyze the significance of one’s decisions. Not only do these alterations provide an insight into what drives addiction, but they also suggest that those who develop a dependence on the drug may be liable to make poor decisions in other areas of life too.

Compared to non-users, cocaine-dependent people displayed increased activity in the ventral striatum, which forms part of the brain’s reward circuit. Importantly, activity in this region was found to be elevated regardless of whether the individual won or lost the gambling challenge, indicating that negative outcomes do not dampen the individual’s desire to seek out the rewards associated with particular activity – in this case, gambling. Accordingly, several previous studies have hypothesized that hyperactivity in the reward circuit may be a major driver of addiction.

Researchers found abnormal patterns of activity in parts of the medial prefrontal cortex in cocaine users. This applied particularly to the areas encompassing the anterior cingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex, both of which are associated with assessing the outcomes of one’s decisions, attributing salience to these outcomes, performance monitoring, and the encoding of reward and punishment signals.

cocaine effects on the brain
Young people taking cocaine today need to be educated about the long-term risk of aging prematurely.

Cocaine and Brain Aging

Cocaine-dependent individuals anecdotally appear aged and their mortality rates are estimated up to eight times higher than in the healthy population. Psychological and physiological changes typically associated with old age such as cognitive decline, brain atrophy, or immunodeficiency are also seen in middle-aged cocaine-dependent individuals [3]. These observations raise the question of whether cocaine abuse might accelerate the process of normal aging. There are several reasons for assuming that chronic cocaine exposure interferes with the processes of brain aging.

New research by scientists at the University of Cambridge suggests that chronic cocaine abuse accelerates the process of brain aging. The study, published today in Molecular Psychiatry, found that age-related loss of grey matter in the brain is greater in people who are dependent on cocaine than in the healthy population. The concern of accelerated aging is not limited to young people but also affects older adults who have been abusing drugs such as cocaine since early adulthood.

Cocaine Abuse Statistics

Cocaine is a highly addictive illegal drug used by 14-21 million people worldwide. In 2018 there are 874,000 new cocaine users. Users can be from all economic statuses, all ages, and all genders. Since cocaine is combined or ‘cut’ with other chemicals, people have no idea if the dose will be weak or strong. These other chemicals may include fillers, such as paint chemicals, cornstarch, fentanyl, and its analogs, which are added purely to boost profits.

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Cocaine Addiction Treatment Near Me

First and foremost, if you think that a loved one is abusing cocaine, you should first research the drug and addiction associated with it so that you can better understand what your loved one needs. Next, you must plan an intervention to provide your loved ones with options to battle their addiction in a safe and supportive environment. During this intervention, make sure that you offer compassion and support instead of judgment. Lastly, offer your support throughout the entire treatment process.

In addition, prolonged Cocaine use can have severe physical and psychological effects, so it is essential to seek treatment as soon as possible. Inpatient drug rehab offers intensive care that can help you get through the early stages of withdrawal promptly. There are several myths about cocaine and other drugs, so you might be wondering is cocaine a stimulant or depressant? And what are cocaine’s effects on the brain?

Medically-Assisted Detox

Detox is often considered the first stage of treatment. It will help you navigate the complicated process of withdrawal, but it doesn’t address patterns of thought and behavior that contribute to drug use. Various treatment approaches and settings can help provide the ongoing support necessary to maintain long-term sobriety after you complete detox.

Cravings are very common during detox and can be challenging to overcome. This often leads to relapse. Constant medical care provided during inpatient treatment helps prevent relapse. Clinicians can provide necessary medication and medical expertise to lessen cravings and the effects of withdrawals.


Several different modalities of psychotherapy have been used in the treatment of mental health disorders along with addiction, including:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – is an effective treatment that involves making changes in both the patterns of negative thoughts and the behavioral routines which are affecting the daily life of the depressed person for various forms of depression.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy – is a comprehensive mental health and substance abuse treatment program whose ultimate goal is to aid patients in their efforts to build a life worth living. The main goal of DBT is to help a person develop what is referred to as a “clear mind.” 
  • Person-Centered Therapy – is a strategy that allows and encourages clients to understand and resolve their concerns in a safe, supportive environment.
  • Solution Focused Therapy – is an approach interested in solutions that can be quickly implemented with a simple first step leading to further positive consequences.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Drug abuse and mental health disorders often co-occur. In many cases, traumatic experiences can result in a mental health disorder and substance abuse. Dual diagnosis rehabilitation treats both of these issues together. The best approach for the treatment of dual diagnosis is an integrated system. In this strategy, both the substance abuse problem and the mental disorder are treated simultaneously. Regardless of which diagnosis (mental health or substance abuse problem) came first, long-term recovery will depend largely on the treatment for both disorders done by the same team or provider.

Medication-Assisted Treatments

Medication-Assisted Treatments (MAT) for substance use disorders and mental health disorders are commonly used in conjunction with one another. This includes the use of medications and other medical procedures. During your rehab, the staff from your treatment facility will help you identify what caused your addiction and teach you skills that will help you change your behavior patterns and challenge the negative thoughts that led to your addiction. Sometimes, the pressures and problems in your life lead you to rely on substances to help you forget about them momentarily.

Please, do not try to detox on your own. The detox process can be painful and difficult without medical assistance. However, getting through the detox process is crucial for continued treatment. We Level Up provide proper care with round-the-clock medical staff to medically assist your recovery. So, reclaim your life, and call us to speak with one of our treatment specialists. Our counselors know what you are going through and will answer any of your questions.

Cocaine Effects On The Brain
The role of a good medically monitored detox program is to make sure the client is safe while going through Cocaine withdrawal.

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[1] NCBI –
[2] NCBI –
[3] Cocaine Overdose – We Level Up NJ