February 26, 2020

Cocaine Changes the Brain from the FIRST Use

Cocaine is making a comeback.

A recent National Institute on Drug Abuse survey revealed that greater than 1 in 7 Americans over the age of 12 will experiment with cocaine at some point in their lives. That is especially true in Southern California – between 2010 and 2012, cocaine seizures at the US-Mexico border DOUBLED.

Why is this significant?

This easy availability means that California teenagers are at significant risk of cocaine exposure.

And new scientific research suggests that experimenting with cocaine may be even more dangerous than previously thought.

A UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco study discovered that cocaine rapidly re-wires those high-level brain circuits that control learning, memory, and decision-making. Of special relevance, these changes can occur after the very FIRST dose.

Compulsively Seeking Cocaine

During the experiment, the mice were permitted to explore two different chambers with distinct scents and designs, and researchers made a note of which chamber the mice preferred. Then, the lab mice were given cocaine and placed in the chamber that they did not prefer.

However, when the mice were returned to the “preferred” chamber but not given cocaine, they overwhelmingly chose the chamber that they originally did not prefer – the one they associated with cocaine. This led researchers to conclude that the mice were drug-seeking.

Changes within the Brain

After conducting cellular-level tests of those lab mice that had been administered cocaine, scientists discovered that after only a single dose, the mice’s brains exhibited signs of rapid dendritic spine growth.  Dendritic spines are the structures that connect neurons and create nodes within neural pathways.

Dr. Linda Wilbrecht, the lead author who serves as the Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at UC Berkeley, said, “The ones that developed the biggest change in preference for the cocaine inside were also the ones that grew the most spines.”

“Learning about the drug” means that the mice given cocaine would subsequently continue seeking the drug, even to the exclusion of their other needs.

Dr. Wilbrecht explained, explained, saying, “Our images provide clear evidence that cocaine induces rapid gains in new spines, and the more spines the mice gained, the more they show they learned about the drug.”

We have limited real estate in the brain, and this shows how drugs dominate what its users think about. Drug exposure fuels drug use, potentially at the expense of other priorities.”

Applying those implied possibilities to humans could explain how addictive disorders create cravings and compulsions that override other needs and priorities.

We’ve long known that when you become a repeated drug user, the search for more drugs tends to dominate your attention and decision-making. But it’s quite shocking that these neurological changes happened after just one use.” said Wilbrecht.

But there is still room for hope. The human brain continually grows and lose new spines, as shaped by our experiences.  “…as we grow up, we make decisions in an increasingly habitual manner. But the brain can rewire, and it is rewired by lots of experiences.” explains Wilbrecht.

“So even though it was so much more rewired by the exposure to cocaine than it usually is, it can return to normal. I see this as evidence that recovery is possible.”

What Does All This Mean?

The first takeaway is that drug use—even “experimentation”—is never casual, because even initial use triggers brain changes that can eventually lead to addiction. The still-developing adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to these changes.

But the second takeaway is more encouraging. The progress of an addictive disorder is reversible, with abstinence, medication assistance, and the establishment of new, healthier habits. In other words, even a brain that has been altered by substance abuse can be “rewired” for sobriety.

As Dr. Wilbrecht concluded, “Recovery IS possible.”

If you or someone you care about is abusing cocaine, or any other addictive substance, Teensavers Treatment Centers in Orange County, California, can help. Teensavers specializes in helping teens and families in crisis because of substance abuse or behavioral disorders.

Teensavers – “Transforming Lives…”

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