Cocaine Addiction May Be Putting The Brain At Risk, Study Finds

By Keri Blakinger 02/24/17

Researchers have discovered a new neurological side effect of cocaine addiction. 

Man touching his head.

Cocaine addiction may cause a build-up of iron in the brain, according to a new study coming out of the University of Cambridge. 

At first glance, that may seem like an obscure and useless neuroscience factoid—but it could have wide-ranging implications for the possibility of advancing addiction treatment. 

A team of researchers led by Dr. Karen Ersche published the latest findings in Monday’s edition of Translational Psychiatry. The study looked at the brains of 44 people addicted to cocaine and 44 healthy control volunteers, and found that the regular coke users had excess iron in a part of the brain called the globus pallidus

And, the longer they’d used cocaine, the more iron build-up they had. In short, coke addiction in some way screws up the body’s ability to regulate iron—although the exact mechanism isn’t totally clear yet. 

“Given the important role that iron plays in both health and disease, iron metabolism is normally tightly regulated,” Ersche said in a press release. “Long-term cocaine use, however, seems to disrupt this regulation, which may cause significant harm.”

Iron is an essential nutrient that comes from food and is only excreted through blood loss. It is necessary for properly carrying oxygen through the bloodstream, but it’s also key in the brain, where too much iron can cause neuronal death and too little iron can impede dopamine synthesis. 

Off-kilter iron regulation could have effects elsewhere in the body. "Iron is used to produce red blood cells, which help store and carry oxygen in the blood. So, iron deficiency in the blood means that organs and tissues may not get as much oxygen as they need,” Ersche said. “On the other hand, we know that excessive iron in the brain is associated with cell death, which is what we frequently see in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease."

But that’s not to say that cocaine addiction causes any increased risk of Alzheimer’s—the study’s authors say there is no indication of that, in part because those degenerative diseases are associated with excess iron in different regions of the brain not affected by cocaine addiction.

With the latest research in hand, the next step for researchers will be to figure out exactly how cocaine impacts iron regulation—and how to reverse that iron build-up, a finding that could be a breakthrough for addiction treatment.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.