Positive & Negative Effects of Cocaine on the Brain

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Positive & Negative Effects of Cocaine on the Brain

In the last few decades, cocaine has grown to be one of the most prevalent drugs in the United States. Cocaine was introduced to Americans in 1980 and quickly grew in popularity as people grew more and more entranced by its effects on the mind and body. Cocaine is a stimulant, meaning it causes the user to experience heightened alertness and a euphoric sensation, along with arousal and sense of confidence. There are several different ways cocaine can be ingested, but the most popular ways are snorting through the nose and smoking crack-cocaine, which is crystallized cocaine that gives off vapors that produce a high when heated.

Why do people use cocaine?

Cocaine causes a euphoric sensation that for many users is hard to resist. The sensations that come from cocaine use include a boost of energy, a sense of heightened awareness, and as some report, the ability to perform tasks quickly and effectively. People will also use cocaine to improve libido or sexual performance or even to level out from an alcohol or heroin binge. Most importantly, the biggest effect cocaine users seek out is the euphoric sensation that comes from the first hit of cocaine. Such a sensation is very stimulating for the user, but what users often fail to realize is the euphoric sensations and other effects of cocaine reach their peak within 15 minutes, and fall back to base within 1-2 hours.

What effects does cocaine have on the brain?

Short term

In reading the effects that cocaine has on the mind and body it is easy to understand its appeal to many people. Feelings like euphoria, confidence, and awareness are what most people crave to feel. In a healthy brain, engaging in enjoyable activities like socializing, sex, eating and sleeping all will result in a rewarding sensation. This rewarding sensation comes from a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or messenger, that triggers the brain to provide a “feel good” sensation when the person has engaged in enjoyable or life-sustaining behavior, like the activities described above. In a healthy brain, doses of dopamine are delivered in moderation, so while one will not reach a euphoric sensation, they will be able to feel good and enjoy dopamine’s effects. However, once cocaine is introduced to the brain of the user, the euphoric sensation it produces causes them to be at risk for cocaine abuse and addiction.

Cocaine creates the euphoric sensation by causing the brain to release a large amount of dopamine to travel between the cells of the brain. Contrary to a brain on cocaine, in a sober brain dopamine is released in moderation and after has completed its purpose is returned into the releasing cell to be recycled. However, under the influence of cocaine, the dopamine is not only released in an excessive amount, but it is also not reabsorbed into the releasing cell, causing the supply to deplete and the brain to become hyper-stimulated.

The major consequence of the brain not being able to re-absorb the dopamine traveling between cells is the supply is used up during the drug use. As previously described, the positive effects of cocaine high reach their peak within 15 minutes and begin to subside within the next two hours. At this point the user will experience a depressed state due to the deprivation of dopamine in the brain, which typically results in the user using more cocaine in effort to regain the high felt with the initial use. The problem is the dopamine has not had time to replenish, which means that the initial high cannot be obtained. Being unaware of this causes the user to use more and more cocaine in effort to achieve the initial effect. While the euphoria is not regained, the other effects will be active, like hyper-arousal, sensitivity to stimulation, and hyperactivity. Pair these effects with the lack of euphoria and the user is left becoming irritable, paranoid and sometimes even violent. The user will also experience physical and mental consequences like a racing heartbeat and delusional parasitosis, which is when the user gets the imagined sensation of bugs crawling over the body, causing the user to excessively scratch, rub and irritate the skin.

Long term

There are also many long-term consequences of continued cocaine use. The most common and severe consequence is addiction to cocaine. As a person continues to use cocaine they begin to develop a tolerance for it, resulting in the need for the user to take more and more of the drug to get the desired effect. The increased tolerance creates a dependency on the drug, resulting in addiction. Furthermore, as using cocaine continues the user will also become dependent on it for performance purposes. For example, when you use cocaine your sex drive increases and you are able to perform for longer periods of time. Some even state that they are able to perform better due to lowered inhibitions and increased confidence. Such a discovery may cause a person to feel the need to be high in order to perform optimally during sex. Such concepts can be extended into work or academic performance, or even the ability to socialize.

Along with addiction there are cognitive consequences to prolonged cocaine use. Long-term cocaine users often exhibit memory issues, deficits in consequential thinking, and impaired motor skills. Evidence suggests that this is due to the degeneration of grey matter in the brain, which is responsible for emotional regulation, motor functions, information processing, sensory perception, self-control, memory, and decision-making.

Finally, the most observable long-term consequence of cocaine abuse and addiction is depression. Cocaine users tend to be depressed as a result the inability of the brain to re-stabilize the production and administration of dopamine. Eventually, the brain begins to make less dopamine, resulting in a chronic state of depression. This not only reduces the high felt with cocaine use, but it also prevents the user from receiving the natural dose of dopamine when engaging in the rewarding behavior needed to sustain life. Since the user no longer feels that “feel-good” sensation when performing such activities, they stop recognizing the desire to meet these needs. Not only does this result in a loss of appetite, diminished sex drive, and a loss of enjoyment in fun and stimulating activities, but it also trains the brain to only receive the “feel-good” sensation resulting from the release of dopamine when cocaine is consumed.


It is important to note that it is possible to withdraw from cocaine. Most of the withdrawal effects of cocaine manifest through mental and emotional symptoms. This causes people to believe that since there are not many physically painful symptoms of cocaine withdrawal that those who are in fact experiencing withdrawal are just going through a ‘crash’, or coming off of a high. Cocaine withdrawal can be tricky to identify because it closely reflects other symptomatic behavior of emotional disturbance. It can also have a delayed onset, meaning symptoms appear up to one month after the discontinued use of cocaine. Symptoms of cocaine withdrawal include: depression, sleep issues, nightmares, suicidal thoughts, severe cravings, anxiety, loss of interest in enjoyable activities, despondence, low libido and restlessness. These withdrawal symptoms can last for prolonged periods of time and are often mistaken for mental illness unrelated to the neurological consequences of prolonged cocaine use.

The effects of cocaine on the brain are severe and prevalent within most habitual cocaine users. Cocaine has the potential to deteriorate many important functions of the brain and many people do not realize how badly they have damaged their brains and bodies until it is too late and the damage is permanent. If you struggle with cocaine addiction or emotional issues related to cocaine use it is important to seek professional assistance. Not only will a mental health or substance abuse professional be able to help you with your cocaine habit, they will also be able to help you understand and manage any depressed mood or other mental health concerns or consequences you may have.

For many people, substance abuse treatment is the main step in their journey out of drugs or alcohol abuse. To help yourself or someone you love who is struggling with substance abuse, call Nsight Psychology & Addiction today at 888-557-8091 or contact us via confidential email to learn more info@nsightrecovery.com.

Written by GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC