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Cocaine Habit Ages Brain Prematurely

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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cocaine ages brain

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/fotokon

Although cocaine makes people feel more alert and on top of things in the moment, it can leave users vulnerable to a much slower brain in the long run. A new study shows that chronic use ages key parts of the brain at an accelerated rate. The findings were published online April 24 in Molecular Psychiatry.

Regular cocaine users often experience early cognitive decline and brain atrophy, and the new findings show how these users are, indeed, actually losing gray matter in their brain much faster than people who don’t take the drug.

“As we age we all lose gray matter,” Karen Ersche of the Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge and co-author of the new study, said in a prepared statement. But, she noted, “chronic cocaine users lose grey matter at a significantly faster rate, which could be a sign of premature aging.”

Ersche and her colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study the brains of 60 people ages 18 to 50 who used cocaine habitually and 60 healthy people of similar ages and IQs who did not. They found that on average, healthy individuals who didn’t use the drug lost about 1.7 milliliters of grey matter annually, whereas cocaine users were losing closer to 3.1 milliliters each year.

Cocaine users lost much more gray matter in the prefrontal and temporal regions—which help control memory, decision-making and attention—than non-users did.

The find brings a new insight into “why the cognitive deficits typically seen in old age have frequently been observed in middle aged chronic users of cocaine,” Ersche said. Even after the researchers excluded the 16 people from the cocaine group who also had alcohol problems, the trend of accelerated brain mass loss held up.

Of the estimated 21 million cocaine users worldwide, about 1.9 million lived in the U.S. as of 2008. And the largest segment of U.S. users were people ages 18 to 25—some 1.5 percent of whom said they had used cocaine in the past month, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“Young people taking cocaine today need to be educated about the long-term risk of aging prematurely,” Ersche said. But she and her colleagues also noted that the results also underscore the extra cognitive needs that middle-aged and older adult drug users seem more likely have in addition to their addiction problems.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. singing flea 2:56 pm 04/24/2012

    Habitual users of cocaine fall into a group of people that tend to do other drugs as well, smoke more tobacco and pot and eat a lot more junk food as they party hearty. It all takes it’s toll.

    I have observed that people who do a lot of cocaine seem to have lot’s of foul breath due to rotting sinuses so it stands to reason that cocaine does destroy healthy cells. Ice users loose they teeth much faster and smokers their lungs. Sugar addicts wreck their whole body. It’s not hard to figure who abuses what as they age.

    It all comes back to the old cliche that it’s not what you ingest, that is the problem, but how much you ingest.

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  2. 2. sbrazell 5:22 pm 04/24/2012

    I find this article amusing considering that another article recently on this web site talked about how the size of the brain actually has very little to do with intelligence….

    Whereas, I guess, writing for Scientific American online DOES tend to lower intelligence!

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  3. 3. TravelinBrian 6:56 pm 04/24/2012

    The author did not define what is considered “chronic” use for the study.

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  4. 4. huichang 2:12 am 04/25/2012

    I think the author had better explain what the relationship between the gray matter and our intelligence.

    However, I don’t think sbrazell is right to slander the author’s article and reachers’ study.

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  5. 5. jtdwyer 2:22 am 04/25/2012

    It’s most natural to presume that the indicated loss of grey matter would produce some diminished capacity that could in some be quantified: IQ test scores, memory tests, cognitive tests – something. Yet this article at least leaves to the readers imagination to evaluate the consequences of cocaine use beyond the loss of grey matter “in the prefrontal and temporal regions—which help control memory, decision-making and attention”.

    Perhaps, left to his own diminished resources, the reader should conclude that the associated weight loss is beneficial. Alternatively, some scientist might want to quantifiably determine what the actual negative consequences of cocaine use are.

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  6. 6. ironjustice 9:47 am 04/26/2012

    Cocaine use causes erythrocytosis , hence high heart attack incidence.
    “Cocaine-mediated erythrocytosis is one of several effects that cocaine may have on hematologic indices”
    One might wonder whether it is the erythrocytosis which is causing the brain shrinkage ?
    “Investigation revealed brain atrophy that could have been related to polycythemia”

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