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).

Recent Posts in The New Brain

The Neuroscience of Herding and the Government Shutdown

What neuroscience (and cows) tell us about the government shutdown

Brain Scan Can Reveal How Much School Work You’ve Done

Studying in school builds gray matter, preventing cognitive decline in aging

Why Can’t We Get Along?

Blame your parents for difficulty with interpersonal relationships?

Low Testosterone: Where’s the Beef?

New studies question the belief that testosterone levels are related to sex.

St. Patrick’s Day Hangover Doubles Risk of Brain Stroke

One hangover per year is all it takes.

A Tickling Way to Reduce Fear

New study shows tickling reduces fear