As part of a new series on drugs that affect the nervous system, I thought I would begin with cocaine. Unlike many other drugs for some reason cocaine is associated with the rich, famous and successful rather than with troubled teenagers and the homeless. Despite its allure cocaine is a highly additive and highly deadly substance. As a powerful stimulant the powerful high can last anywhere from 15-30 minutes up to an hour. Surprisingly, at least to me, approximately 14% of the American population has tried cocaine (WedMD, 2013) with the largest demographic being males between the age of 18 to 25.
Cocaine like most other recreational drugs affects the brain; if it didn’t there would not be much allure to them really. Most people are after all drawn to drugs because of the escape they offer. Unfortunately, no drugs that play with the mind are to be trusted. As a class A drug, the side effects more than out weighs the highs. Cocaine affects the the neurochemical pathways by blocking the re-uptake of neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine.
As it blocks these three common neurotransmitters it is called a triple re-uptake inhibitor. Drugs that increase the concentration of these specific neurotransmitters are said to be positively reinforcing meaning they create a pleasurably feeling that can become addicting. Addictions such as sex, gambling, eating, etc. can become addictive because they also produce pleasurable feelings that can be self-reinforcing.
In cocaine users these highs are described as euphoric with accompanying feelings of supremacy, positive mood and also an increase in energy and alertness. You can see why famous detective Sherlock Holmes may have been drawn to such a drug. However, sometimes the high can result in increased levels of anxiety, restlessness, paranoia and irritability. Such symptoms illustrate the dangers of playing with our neurochemical balance; we cannot be certain the pathways we affect are going to result in positive feelings. People with a family history of mental illness are increasingly vulnerable to the effects of cocaine use because such a major flux in their brain chemistry can trigger the onset of disorders ranging from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia.
The dangers of cocaine abuse are not just limited to the brain. Travelling through the blood, cocaine can have devastating effects of the heart, the kidneys, the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal tract and even sexual function. You can read more about these effects on WedMD.
Extracted from the coca leaf, cocaine or benzoylmethylecgonine is a crystalline tropane alkaloid (-ine suffix) meaning that it has a crystal-like and nitrogen-based structure that occurs naturally. The coca leaf is mostly found and cultivated in the Andes of South America. From the coca extract the two major forms of cocaine are crack cocaine and powdered cocaine.
Crack cocaine is the free-base from of the drug meaning it still in its crystalline structure making it possible to be melted down to be smoked. Powdered cocaine can be dissolved into water or inhaled.
A major danger with cocaine is that it contains a lipophilic group, a hydrophilic group, and an aliphatic group. Meaning it can pass through polar and non-polar membranes, specifically the blood-brain barrier.
Over time the reward-system established by frequent cocaine abuse causes damage to the dopamine pathway. This damage means that the pleasure experienced becomes diminished and for the person to experience the same high they must now increase their dosage. Increased cocaine dosage obviously increases the physiological and psychological effects of cocaine addiction.
Physiological and psychological effects of addiction:
- Mood swings
- High blood pressure
- Panic attacks
- Cognitive impairment
- Changes in personality
- Psychosis: including tactile hallucinations (“coke bugs” or formication)
- Tachycardia (increased heart rate)
Symptoms of cocaine withdrawal include:
- Mood swings
Cocaine Overdose and Treatment
Due to the serious nature of the effects of cocaine abuse, cocaine overdose is common amongst users. The most common cause of death due to overdose is tachycardia, and is a result of the body weakening due to the drug rather than an a lethal dosage. As such, cocaine related deaths are frequently accidental. The increased heart rate elevates blood pressure to the point of respiratory failure, stroke, cerebral hemorrhage, or heart-failure.
Unfortunately, even when a person overdosing is brought to an emergency room not much can be done except treat the symptoms. As of right now there is no antidote for cocaine. However, it is still important that these symptoms are treated as it may be able to prevent the above listed causes of cocaine-related deaths.
The symptoms to look for include:
- Chest pain
- Increased heart rate
Thank you for reading! Please comment with any drug you would like to learn about next.
“Cocaine Overdose Symptoms and Treatment.” Cocaine Overdose Symptoms, Signs, and Treatment. Project Know, 2013. Web. 16 Aug. 2013. <http://www.projectknow.com/research/cocaine-overdose/>.
“Cocaine Use and Its Effects.” WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 16 Aug. 2013. <http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/cocaine-use-and-its-effects>.
“DrugFacts: Cocaine.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIH…Turning Discovery Into Health®, Apr. 2013. Web. 16 Aug. 2013. <http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/cocaine>