Extensive research has been conducted to determine how cocaine works on the brain. Cocaine affects the production, uptake and breaking down of three chemicals or neurotransmitters that naturally occur in the brain. These neurotransmitters are:
What are neurotransmitters?
- Serotonin (also referred to as 5-hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT)
- Norepinephrine (also referred to as Noradrenaline or adrenaline)
Neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals that communicate information throughout our brain and body. They relay signals between nerve cells, called “neurons.” The brain uses neurotransmitters to tell your heart to beat, your lungs to breathe, and your stomach to digest. It is believed that the brain contains several hundred different types of neurotransmitters. Different neurotransmitters serve different functions.
Dopamine has several different functions. It plays a critical role in the function of the central nervous system, and it is also linked with the brain's complex system of motivation and reward. The release of dopamine into the brain elicits a sense of reward and pleasure. Instances where dopamine release would normally occur include during sex, when hugging your child, or consuming a nice meal.
Serotonin is involved in a number of functions including mood, appetite and anger. Serotonin is also involved in the regulation of circadian rhythms including sleep-wake cycles, body temperature, blood pressure, and the release of hormones.
Norepinephrine is associated with the body’s fight or flight response, increasing heart rate, triggering the release of glucose from energy stores, and increasing blood flow to skeletal muscle.
Cocaine and the Brain
When you take cocaine these three neurotransmitters are released into the brain. Normally these chemicals are reabsorbed after they have done their job, however cocaine also impedes the reuptake of the neurotransmitters, effectively allowing these chemicals to accumulate in the brain. It is the accumulation of these chemicals within the brain that produces the effects that are both euphoric/rewarding as well as fearful and jittery.
Unfortunately there is not an infinite supply of these neurotransmitters. It takes time for the body to produce more and therefore when you use cocaine you run the risk of depleting your supply of neurotransmitters which are required for the normal day to day functioning of your body. This can leave you feeling exhausted and depressed and make it difficult to take pleasure in things that would normally make you feel good. It also means that repeated use of cocaine or other drugs that interact with these neurotransmitters such as ecstasy or amphetamines will result in less return as the drugs will have no neurotransmitters to draw upon.