The Effects of Cocaine on the Brain

When you use cocaine, typical initial effects include elevated mood, increased energy, and greater confidence. You may also feel anxious, restless, agitated, or paranoid. How, exactly, does this happen? In other words, what does cocaine do to your brain?

What Does Cocaine Do to Your Brain?

There are many potential answers to the question, what does cocaine do to your brain. To better understand the range of effects that this drug can have, it can be helpful to look at the topic from both a short- and long-term perspective. 

Short-Term Impact of Cocaine on the Brain

The initial physical, psychological, and behavioral effects of cocaine use all result from how the drug interacts with your brain and central nervous system (CNS). Here’s what the short-term impact of cocaine on your brain and CNS involves:

  • When the drug enters your system, it attaches to dopamine transporters on neurons in certain parts of the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or brain chemical, that is associated with learning, motivation, and pleasure.
  • Neurons use dopamine to send messages. In a healthy central nervous system, once an adequate amount of that neurotransmitter has been released into the synapses that separate neurons, dopamine transporters reabsorb any excess, which can be stored and reused.
  • When cocaine attaches to dopamine transporters, it prevents them from absorbing dopamine. This leads to a buildup in the synapses, and amplifies the message that is being sent. This results in an energy boost and other common effects of cocaine use.
  • As the cocaine is processed and eliminated from the body, the dopamine receptors can once again do their job – but the sending neurons may be temporarily unable to produce additional dopamine. Thus, as dopamine levels recede, the result can be a physical and psychological crash.

Depending on factors such as which method you used to ingest cocaine and how much you used, this entire process may take as little as 10-15 minutes or as long as an hour or more. 

Long-Term Impact of Cocaine on the Brain

Two recently published studies can help answer the question, what does cocaine do to your brain over the long term?

A May 2023 study in the journal Biology used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other techniques to compare brain structure and health between adults who have become addicted to cocaine and those with no history of cocaine abuse. This research effort yielded the following conclusions:

  • The brains of people who were addicted to cocaine had “widespread gray matter atrophy” in several areas – including the temporal lobe, frontal lobe, insula, superior frontal gyrus, and limbic lobe – that are involved with functions such as working memory, emotions, language, and attention
  • There was a brain-predicted age difference of 2.6 years between the two groups. This means that the brains of adults who were addicted to cocaine appeared to be more than two and a half years older than the brains of individuals of similar chronological age who had no history of cocaine abuse.

A February 2024 study in the Journal of Neuroscience found that long-term cocaine abuse can impair communication and coordination among various brain regions and networks. These impairments, the study found, included the following:

  • Disrupted communication between the default mode network (which is active when a person is reflecting or daydreaming) and the salience network (which plays an important role in attentiveness)
  • Altered coactivity between the anterior insular cortex (which is involved with social and emotional processing) and the retrosplenial cortex (which influences memory, navigation, and planning)

Other Effects of Cocaine Abuse and Addiction

Cocaine’s impact on your brain can lead to serious problems in virtually every other part of your life, such as:

  • Physical injuries due to reckless or impulsive behaviors while under the influence of cocaine
  • An array of potentially fatal medical concerns, including heart damage, hypertension, respiratory distress, seizures, cardiac arrest, and stroke
  • Psychological challenges such as anxiety, depression, paranoia, and psychosis
  • Diminished performance at work, which could lead to job loss, unemployment, and financial difficulties
  • Strained relationships with family and friends, which can rob you of essential interpersonal support at a time when you may most need it

It is difficult to overstate cocaine’s ability to cause grievous, irreversible harm. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) cocaine was involved in more than 24,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2021 alone. This works out to an average of about 67 cocaine-related overdose deaths every single day.

Thankfully, there is a glimmer of good news: Cocaine addiction is a treatable condition. With proper care and a concerted effort, people can overcome the urge to abuse this dangerous drug and achieve a much healthier future.

Find Cocaine Addiction Treatment in Massachusetts

If you have become trapped in the downward spiral of compulsive cocaine abuse, please know that you are not alone, and help is available. 

Lake Avenue Recovery offers personalized outpatient treatment for adults whose lives have been disrupted by addictions to cocaine and other substances, as well as those who have also been living with certain co-occurring mental health conditions.

Our cocaine addiction treatment center in Worcester, Massachusetts, is a safe and supportive place where you will be cared for by a team of highly skilled professionals. We will take the time to get to know you as a unique and valuable individual, so that we can be sure we are providing the focused care that best aligns with your needs and goals. 

To learn more or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Admissions page or call us today.