Looks Like Cocaine Might Actually Cause Brain To Eat Itself

By John Lavitt 01/27/16

High levels of cocaine could possibly make brain cells go cannibal.


A new study at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine has shown that high levels of cocaine usage actually can cause the brain to eat itself like an internal cannibal. Using mice, the study revealed how cocaine can trigger out-of-control "autophagy.” Autophagy is a process by which cells literally digest themselves when they are no longer functioning. Cocaine ingestion takes this process and turns it upside down.

A normal physiological process in the body that deals with destruction of cells in the body, autophagy maintains homeostasis or normal functioning after protein degradation. In a sense, it is the process of turnover of the destroyed cell organelles for new cell formation. When properly regulated, autophagy can be described as the body’s maid service, ridding cells of unwanted debris. The unwanted debris and degraded proteins are dissolved away by enzymes within the cell.

In the postmortems, the scientists found clear signs of autophagy-induced cell death in the brains of mice given high doses of cocaine. They also found evidence of autophagy in the brain cells of mice whose mothers received the drug while pregnant.

Dr. Prasun Guha led the research team and published the results in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "A cell is like a household that is constantly generating trash," Dr. Guha said. "Autophagy is the housekeeper that takes out the trash—it's usually a good thing. But cocaine makes the housekeeper throw away really important things, like mitochondria, which produce energy for the cell."

Their results, however, bring with them a possible antidote, an experimental compound dubbed CGP3466B. The drug was able to protect mouse nerve cells from cocaine death due to autophagy. Since the drug has already been tested in clinical trials to treat Parkinson's and motor neuron disease, it is known to be safe in humans. Still, more research is needed to find out whether the drug could prevent the harmful effects of cocaine in people.

Co-author Dr. Maged Harraz, also from Johns Hopkins University, said, "Since cocaine works exclusively to modulate autophagy versus other cell death programs, there's a better chance that we can develop new targeted therapeutics to suppress its toxicity."

Despite the desire to suppress the toxicity of cocaine, a greater outcome of the study is an explanation of why so many cocaine addicts have trouble in the early stages of recovery.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.