The Effects of Cocaine on the Human Brain

By: Marcel Gemme

The human brain weighs approximately three pounds and influences everything a person does. You may not realize it, but your brain is not the same today as it was yesterday or last month. The brain is a continuously changing collection of cells. When you learn something new or have a new experience, new synapses form. Some synapses get stronger, or some synapses may even disappear. Your brain even enables you to feel pleasure. Whenever you do something that you enjoy, such as eating your favorite snack, drinking a cold drink on a hot summer day, or laughing with your friends, the reward pathway in your brain is activated. It is that stimulation of the neurons in the reward pathway that makes you feel good.

Cocaine acts on the neurons in the reward pathway. Cocaine increases the release of dopamine. The increased dopamine levels give drug abusers the rush or a high that they enjoy for a short time. The feelings of pleasure the drugs create only last a short time, but drugs can cause changes in the brain that last a very long time. Some of the changes may even be permanent.

One of the changes that occur when a person takes Cocaine is the development of cravings. If a person takes Cocaine and then stops taking it, he or she will crave the drug. In other words, the individual will have a strong desire to take more of the drug. Cocaine exerts such a strong effect that even the mention of it may stimulate cravings in Cocaine addicts. Figuring out why addicts are so prone to relapse is a major area of research. One culprit is the phenomenon of craving, or the powerful "hunger" for drugs that can linger months or years after an addict quits using. Scientists have discovered evidence that this craving may be partly a physiological phenomenon, related to the long-term changes in brain function that addiction causes. Now accustomed to functioning in the presence of drugs, the addicted brain, in essence, has become unable to function normally in their absence.

As you have learned in previous, on a short-term basis, Cocaine alters the release of dopamine. But what happens when a person takes Cocaine over a long period of time? Does the body respond to it in the same way it did when the person tried the drugs for the first time? Often, the individual doesn't get as intense of a response after taking it repeatedly. This is called "tolerance." The brain has adapted to having a certain amount of the drug present and doesn't respond the same way it did initially. The body may become more efficient at metabolizing or breaking down the drug. This reduces the amount of drug in the bloodstream. Or, the cells of the body and the brain can become more resistant to the effect of the drug by causing changes in the activity of the receptors. Tolerance explains why drug abusers and addicts take increasingly higher doses of drugs over time.

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Chris Till has been in the field of addiction for over 4 years. He is a certified chemical dependency counselor.

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