The New Brain

How your brain—and our understanding of it—are constantly changing.

Cocaine Shrinks the Brain

Brain atrophy from cocaine dependence.

You no doubt know that it eats holes in your nose and can cause heart attacks, but the latest research reports that cocaine abuse also shrinks the brain. K.D. Ersche and colleagues at Cambridge University report that cocaine abuse accelerates the process of normal aging, which is associated, among other things, with a gradual loss of brain volume in later years in parallel with cognitive decline.

Using brain imaging the researchers compared the gray matter volume of 120 individuals 18-50 years of age, half of whom were dependent on cocaine. Both groups showed the expected decline in gray matter as a direct function of age, however, in cocaine dependent individuals the brain atrophy plummeted at twice the normal rate as in normal aging. Cocaine dependent subjects lost about 3 cc of total gray matter volume per year. So that if you began at age 15 with a gray matter volume of 800 cc, comparable to the engine displacement of a Harley-Davidson Sportster Iron, you'd be down to a 700 cc Vespa Scooter by the time you reached 50 if you were cocaine-dependent. People who were not dependent on cocaine or other drugs lost gray matter at a rate of 1.6cc/yr. 

The loss of gray matter was most severe in prefrontal and temporal lobes, areas critical for executive function and memory. Deeper regions of the brain, the striatum, were less affected by cocaine dependency. The results are reported in today's issue of the journal Molecular Psychiatry (April 24, 2012).

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R. Douglas Fields, Ph.D., is the Chief of the Nervous System Development and Plasticity Section at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the author of The Other Brain. more...

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