Researchers Reveal New Images of Cocaine's Effect on the Brain

By Victoria Kim 09/04/14

Images of a mouse brain revealed how cocaine affects tiny blood vessels in the brain.

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Your brain on drugs. Literally. Photo via

Drugs such as amphetamines and cocaine damage the brain’s blood vessels and can cause aneurysm-like bleeding and strokes. Due to the limitations of current imaging tools, however, scientists were not able to observe the minute details of cocaine’s effects on the brain’s blood vessels.

But a new method developed by researchers from Stony Brook University and the U.S. National Institutes of Health has made it possible to better understand how drug abuse affects the brain.

The research, which was published last Thursday in the Optical Society’s open access journal Biomedical Optics Express, revealed high resolution images using the new and improved method called optical coherence Doppler tomography (ODT). The researchers were able to observe exactly how cocaine affects the tiny blood vessels, or capillaries, in the brain of a mouse.

The images revealed a dramatic drop in blood flow speed after 30 days of chronic cocaine injection or even after just repeated acute cocaine injection. For the first time ever, researchers were able to identify cocaine-induced microischemia, or when blood flow is shut down, which is a precursor to a stroke.

Previous techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) do not provide a high enough resolution to study what goes on inside capillaries. But ODT offers a wide field of view at high resolution which allows researchers to determine how fast the blood is flowing. Measuring blood flow is crucial to understanding how the brain is working.

“We show that quantitative flow imaging can provide a lot of useful physiological and functional information that we haven’t had access to before,” said Yingtian Pan, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Stony Brook University.

This new technique could help improve brain cancer surgery and tissue engineering, as well as treatment options for recovering drug addicts.

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