New study goes a long way to explaining cocaine addiction

In a recent study scientists have found, in the brains of cocaine addicts, significant abnormalities which may help explain the compulsive behavior that accompanies using the narcotic. It also hints to why people that use the drug are prone to getting addicted.

Scans on the brain revealed that those that use cocaine had large decreases in grey matter in the frontal lobes and that affects key functions and included memory and attention, decision making, while other parts of their brains were larger. One finding was the longer the use the poorer their attention became and they started to use the drug more compulsively.

This they say is the benchmark for cocaine use – that many are intelligent individuals who go to great lengths to purchase the drug, to get additional amounts and to put their livelihood on the line, risk their families and all the time feeling they need to use more.

On Tuesday in the journal Brain, the results were published. The brains of 60 addicts of cocaine were scanned and compared with scans from 60 people that did not have any history of taking drugs. There were a significant amount of abnormalities in users of cocaine. Most pointedly the amount of grey matter on the frontal cortex was smaller in those that were cocaine addicted.

Other areas that were affected included the part of the brain known as insula an area involved in processing, feedback, feelings of cravings and learning. In the anterior cingulated the grey matter involved in being attentive and emotional processing also decreased.

By contrast the region in the deepest part of the brain that was associated with attention, reward processing and motor movement – the chordate nucleus – was bigger in those who were cocaine addicts. This explains why these people had more of a probability to addiction but the scientists could not determine the reason for the enlargement and did not know if it was related to the drug use.

Laurence John Reed from Imperial College London and a clinical senior lecturer said the most impressive results were the comparisons of stimulant uses and control users and show how the brain can remodel itself in response to narcotics. This is a visual and striking example how stimulant use can affect the very important systems in the brain that correlates directly to behavior – and most specifically to compulsivity, impulsivity and inattention.