Cocaine is a well-known stimulant drug that caused almost 20,000 overdose deaths in 2020, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The NIDA reports that in 2020, about 5.2 million Americans ages 12 and up reported using cocaine in the previous year. Not only is regular use of cocaine potentially deadly, but it can also affect a person’s mental health due to how the drug changes a person’s brain.
How Cocaine Affects the Brain
Cocaine use can cause profound changes in a person’s brain. It has been linked to many psychiatric symptoms, syndromes, and disorders. Cocaine usage may also exacerbate any psychiatric disorders an individual is dealing with, increasing their issues or the severity of their symptoms.
Cocaine affects several important neurotransmitters — dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter in the brain’s pleasure centers, while norepinephrine affects a person’s alertness, as well as their heart rate and blood pressure. Mood regulation, appetite, and sleep, among other behaviors, are linked to serotonin.
Most people know that cocaine affects the brain’s reward pathways. While these two circuits or pathways in the brain are different, there is some overlap. What is less well-known is the effect that cocaine has on how the brain responds to stress. As a result, cocaine can elevate a person’s stress hormones, causing them to be even more sensitive to the drug and their need for it.
Finally, cocaine also impairs how the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) functions. This is believed to be why someone with a cocaine addiction suffers from poor decision-making. Cocaine’s effect on the OFC is also linked to a person’s inability to adapt to the negative consequences of their drug use and why they lack self-insight about their addiction.
Short- and Long-Term Effects of Cocaine Use
Cocaine use affects a person in multiple ways. Even short-term drug use can be harmful, resulting in physical and mental effects. These can include:
- Constricted blood vessels
- Dilated pupils
- Increased body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure
- Erratic and violent behavior
- Panic and paranoia
- Muscle twitches
Long-term cocaine use leads to various health problems like organ damage, particularly in the stomach and heart. It also puts individuals at an increased risk for stroke, seizures, and other neurological problems.
Cocaine and Mental Health
Once the connection between cocaine and its damage to the brain is understood, it becomes easier to understand how the drug can harm a person’s mental health.
The disruption cocaine causes in the brain’s neural connections has been linked in the long-term by researchers to the development of depression, anger, aggressiveness, and paranoia. Even if someone doesn’t develop psychosis or paranoia because of their cocaine usage, they are at an increased risk of developing other mental health concerns, like anxiety, panic disorders, depression, or problems with aggression.
First, there is the emotional crash a person experiences when the drug leaves their system. How severe and long-lasting these depressive episodes can be will vary, depending on the individual. It is possible, though, that they can lead to suicidal thoughts. But even in the short-term, cocaine may damage mental health.
Paranoia and psychosis are mental health dangers particularly associated with cocaine use. Studies have shown 68% to 84% of those that use cocaine experience paranoia, while psychosis (including hallucinations and delusions) is found in anywhere from 29% to 53% of cocaine users.
Research that helps provide further understanding and, hopefully, treatment for addiction is ongoing. For instance, the hope is that advances in brain imaging may guide researchers toward biomarkers responsible for a person’s increased vulnerability to drug addiction. This technology has already provided insight into how the brain communicates cravings and the ways medications may help the brain deflect those cues from cocaine.
Neuroimaging technologies have also shown how a person’s brain can recover from cocaine use. The damage that the drug does to gray matter in particular brain regions has been shown to improve after periods of abstinence. The knowledge that some of the damage cocaine does to the brain may be reversible over time offers those with addiction yet another incentive to maintain their sobriety.
A licensed mental health and substance abuse intensive outpatient program (IOP) in Scottsdale, Arizona, Rising Phoenix was created to offer a safe, welcoming, and nurturing environment where clients are not judged, but embraced, throughout their recovery process.