How Cocaine Alters The Brain's Sensitivity To Future Doses

By Keri Blakinger 12/04/15

A new study showed how the drug makes one's brain more sensitive nearly a week after use.

woman chopping cocaine.jpg

A new study has shown that doing cocaine once can make you more sensitive to the drug for almost a week after.

Scientists at Bordeaux University determined that stimulation in one part of the brain—the ventral subiculum, or vSUB—makes the dopamine neurons in another part of the brain go into a hyperactive state. That whole process makes the brain more sensitive to coke for up to five days after use.

The vSUB has sometimes been labeled the “addiction center” of the brain because previous studies have linked it to drug-seeking impulses.

One of the study’s co-authors, Francois Georges, told IFLScience that the study is important because scientists have now identified “a neuronal circuit that for sure is changed during cocaine administration.”

The studies were conducted using rats as subjects and employed a method called high frequency stimulation, which involves using electric currents to stimulate synapses in a process that is believed to have the same effect as a large dose of cocaine.

Then researchers looked at the resulting neuronal activity and found that the vSUB increased the responsiveness of dopamine neurons elsewhere.

“By synaptic stimulation we were able to change the plasticity of the dopaminergic neurons,” Georges explained. “Through this stimulation we put the brain into a phase where it becomes more receptive to low doses of cocaine. It’s like we prepared the brain to be more responsive to the drug.”

That all could have important implications for drug users. According to Georges, it could be the first step to finding a way to treat cocaine addiction. Essentially, this circuit shows how to make cocaine more potent, but it might hold the key to making it less potent as well.

“The idea now would be to manipulate this circuit to see if we can reduce the effect of cocaine, which could be a lead to decrease cocaine intake in drug addicts,” he said.

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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.