Brain and Body

11 Things That Happen in the Brain and Body on Cocaine

July 12, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

White powdered cocaine
Photo credit: DEA

From increased mental alertness to impaired sexual function.

According to the 2014 National Survey and Drug Use and Health, there were an estimated 1.5 million cocaine users ages 12 and up who had used cocaine in the past month, and 1.4 percent of adults aged 18 to 25 reported past-month cocaine use.

Despite its popularity, the 2015 Global Drug Survey found that cocaine remains the most expensive drug per gram in the world.

From Pulp Fiction’s Mia Wallace to Leo’s role as the notorious Wolf of Wall Street, the drug has made its way to the big screen in a number of memorable films.

SEE ALSO: FDA-Approved Drug for Obesity and Diabetes Could Be Used to Treat Cocaine Addiction

However, most of these movies don’t paint an accurate picture of what goes on in the brain and body after snorting a line or two of the white powder, so let’s take a look at the science behind cocaine’s psychophysiological effects.

1. The effects begin within seconds and the high is short-lived

Once cocaine is ingested — snorted, injected or smoked — it travels through the bloodstream to reach the brain within seconds. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the high from injecting or smoking cocaine is extremely short-lived, lasting only five to 10 minutes. The high from snorting cocaine is also short-lived, but lasts roughly 15 to 30 minutes.

2. Dopamine levels are increased

Ingesting cocaine increases levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure.

3. Cocaine blocks dopamine reabsorption

The brain releases dopamine when it responds to a number of potential rewards, like the smell of good food or the sound of your favorite song. However, it’s then reabsorbed into the cell that released it, which shuts off the signal between nerve cells.

Cocaine prevents the dopamine from being recycled, which leads to excessive amounts of dopamine building up between nerve cells. This overload of dopamine is what switches up normal brain communication into the high experienced by cocaine users.

4.  Serotonin levels also go up

Cocaine users also experience a similar rush in serotonin as seen with dopamine. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in mood, social behavior, appetite, sleep, and sexual desire.

4. Pupils dilate

Since cocaine increases levels of both dopamine and serotonin, a user’s pupils will become dilated.

SEE ALSO: Experts Ranked the Top 5 Most Addictive Substances on Earth

5. Blood vessels will tighten or constrict

Cocaine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which is involved in the body’s “fight or flight” response. As a result, a user’s blood vessels will tighten up or constrict.

6. Heart rate and blood pressure goes up

Ingesting cocaine increases heart rate and blood pressure, and since the blood vessels become tightened, blood flow to the heart muscle is interrupted. In serious cases, this can lead to a heart attack, even in young people without heart disease, as WebMD reports.

7. Blood vessels in the brain may even constrict

In some cases, cocaine can constrict blood vessels in the brain, and lead to strokes, seizures, and bizarre or violent behavior. Again, this can happen even in young people without other risk factors for strokes.

8. Cocaine can cause irritability, anxiety, and paranoia

While many people use cocaine for its euphoric and energizing effects, others can experience less-desirable side effects like anxiety, paranoia, and irritability.

9. It can impair sexual function

Contrary to the popular belief that cocaine works as a type of aphrodisiac, the drug can actually impair sexual function in both men and women. In men, it can cause delayed or impaired ejaculation, WebMD explains.

10. It can increase mental alertness

According to NIDA, some cocaine users experience a boost in mental alertness and can find that the drug helps them perform simple mental and physical tasks more quickly.

11. Brain cells cannibalize themselves

A recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that high doses of cocaine can actually cause brain cells to commit suicide by eating themselves. The process, called autophagy, is a kind of cellular “cleanup process,” and cocaine can cause the process to spin out of control and lead to cellular suicide.


Read other stories in this series: Alcohol, Broken Hearts, Marijuana, Chemo, LSD

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