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Cocaine and the brain: Study maps how cocaine use changes the brain

Using an animal model, researchers from Oregon investigated how, even after one dose, the hyperactivity associated with cocaine use can alter the brain.

Using cocaine creates both physiological and psychological changes. Some of these changes are caused by changes in the nervous system, while others are due to the size, weight, health, and personality of the user. As a result, each user’s experience is unique.

Cocaine and the cocaine high

However, one of the most commonly reported side effects of cocaine use is the feeling of euphoria, referred to as the cocaine high.  In addition, users frequently report feeling more energetic, alert, self-confident, talkative, and sociable when high on cocaine. Many cocaine users state that they continue taking cocaine because they like feeling this way.  For these reasons, cocaine is highly addictive.

Negative effects of cocaine use

In addition to the legal ramifications of using an illegal substance, there are also unpleasant and harmful side effects associated with cocaine use.  Since it is often impossible to know the strength and purity of the cocaine, it is difficult to predict the severity of the harmful side effects which include:

  • Feeling paranoid, agitated, or panicky
  • Feeling aggressive or violent
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Muscle tremors
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Risk of stroke or heart attack
  • Kidney failure
  • Death

Repeated uses of cocaine often lead to developing a tolerance for the drug so that individuals feel like they need to take larger doses in order to feel the same high.  In addition, people can become more tolerant of the unpleasant side effects associated with cocaine use.

Mapping how cocaine use changes the brain

In a recent study published in eNeuro, researchers from Oregon Health & Science University in the United States used tracer molecules to follow the electrical activity in the brain when under the influence of cocaine.  They discovered that rats exposed to cocaine once or each day for five days all had altered neural circuit networks.

Cocaine exposure led to synaptic changes in amygdala which regulates motivation and learning.  In addition, it caused an increase in the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter which plays a major role in regulating movement and emotion. The effects lasted up to five days.

This study helps researchers and health professionals to better understand the synaptic mechanisms associated with cocaine addiction.  The research team hopes that this study will lead to cocaine addiction treatments which induce the ventral subiculum to help control cocaine-induced activity.

Written by Debra A. Kellen, PhD


  1. Slaker, M. L., Jorgensen, E. T., Hegarty, D. M., Liu, X., Kong, Y., Zhang, F., … &Sorg, B. A. (2018). Cocaine Exposure Modulates Perineuronal Nets and Synaptic Excitability of Fast-Spiking Interneurons in the Medial Prefrontal Cortex. eNeuro5(5).
  2. Australian Drug Foundation. Cocaine facts.  Last updated 29 Jan 2013. (accessed November 12, 2018)
Debra Kellen PhD
Debra Kellen PhD
With undergraduate degrees in Neuroscience and Education from the University of Toronto, Debra began her career as a teacher. Nine years later, when she moved to Michigan, Debra earned a Ph.D. in Education Policy from the University of Michigan. Today, Debra organizes conferences and conducts workshops to provide training and support for educators and medical professionals on effective coaching, staff recruitment and training, and creating a culture of continuous improvement. She loves to read and enjoys the challenge of translating medical research into informative, easy-to-read articles. Debra spends her free time with her family, travelling, wandering through art fairs, and canoeing on the Huron River.


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