Cocaine is a hugely addictive drug, capable of fundamentally changing the brains of those who use it. But that dependence doesn't necessarily come out of nowhere, as we've now discovered what part of the brain predisposes people to cocaine use.

Cambridge researchers scanned the brain of sixty people who had cocaine dependencies and another sixty people who did not. The cocaine users had greatly reduced gray matter in their brains, and the amount of gray matter loss was directly tied to how long they had used cocaine. The greater the reduction in gray matter also correlated with an increased compulsion to take the drug.


Of course, none of that is exactly news, since cocaine is well known for its highly addictive properties and its ability to change what people think and feel over time. The real discovery was that the basal ganglia, which is the reward center of the brain, was significantly enlarged in the brains of the cocaine users.

What's more, the enlargement showed no relationship with how long people had been taking the drug. That suggests the basal ganglia was enlarged before the people started taking cocaine. This might well mean that we've found the part of the brain that determines a person's vulnerability to cocaine use.


Cambridge neuroscientist Dr. Karen Ersche explains what this finding means:

"This research gives us important insight into why some people are more vulnerable to drug addiction. Not only is this important for the future development of more effective therapeutic interventions for people who have become dependent on drugs, it will also inform improved strategies to prevent drug addiction in the first place. People with cocaine dependence describe their out-of-control drug use as a 'compulsion' to use cocaine. Our current work has laid the foundation for a better understanding of cocaine dependence and why this compulsion occurs. Our findings are important because they show a clear relationship between the brain, the duration of cocaine use and some of the common attention problems that people with cocaine dependence report. These data show that cocaine dependence is a disorder of the brain, which is very relevant information for the treatment of people who are trying to beat their addiction."


Via Brain. Image by Bruce Rolff/Shutterstock

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