Cocaine is a central nervous system stimulant that’s illegally made and sold on the streets. It’s often used recreationally due to the euphoric and energizing side effects it produces. Also known as crack or coke, cocaine is considered one of the deadliest drugs on the market due to its impact on the brain and body. Among its many side effects, memory loss is often questioned. Can cocaine cause memory loss?
Like other stimulants, cocaine works by stimulating the release of dopamine in the brain and blocking it from being reabsorbed by proteins for later use. Dopamine is known as a feel-good chemical because it plays a major role in pleasure, pain, and mood.
When elevated, dopamine can produce a sense of euphoria and well-being. As a naturally occurring chemical, our dopamine levels often rise when we do something pleasurable, such as eat.
Increases in dopamine are a common side effect of most if not all addictive drugs, such as cocaine. Specifically, cocaine impacts the brain’s reward system, which originates in the region of the midbrain that extends to another vital area called the nucleus accumbens.
In a normal communication process, dopamine is released by a neuron into the synapse, or a small space between two neurons, where it binds to dopamine receptors on the second neuron. In this way, dopamine is sent from one neuron to another, and the excess is eventually recycled for further use.
Cocaine interferes with this process by binding to the dopamine transporter, blocking the removal of dopamine from the synapse. This causes dopamine to accumulate in the synapse, amplifying the signaling to neurons and creating a high.
Over time, continuous drug use leads to addiction and creates a permanent imbalance in the brain, which can contribute to problems in other regions and functions of the brain.
Indirectly, yes, cocaine can cause memory loss. Cocaine acts as a catalyst for memory loss rather than a direct cause.
There’s plenty of research on drug abuse and memory loss, most of which suggests that chemical imbalances and deteriorated white and gray brain matter caused by drug use can lead to memory loss and impairment. Short-term memory loss due to drugs is often characterized by asking the same questions repeatedly, forgetting common words, completing familiar tasks at slower rates, unexplained mood changes, and more.
One study on the long-term effects of coke use on memory compared 57 cocaine users (19 with increased, 19 with decreased, and 19 with unchanged cocaine use) to 48 non-users.1 Researchers followed the groups for a year and used hair samples to measure the intensity of their cocaine use.
Both groups completed cognitive tests to measure their performance at the beginning and end of the study. The tests measured areas like attention, working memory, declarative memory, and others.
At the end of the study, participants who increased their cocaine use showed reduced cognitive performance, primarily in working memory. On the contrary, decreased cocaine use was linked to small cognitive improvements in all areas of tests.
Most importantly, users who stopped using cocaine altogether seemed to recover completely, showing cognitive performance similar to those who did not use cocaine.1 However, working memory wasn’t as easily recovered as it was dependent on when the individual started using cocaine in general.
Ultimately, this study shows that cocaine brain damage can occur as a result of long-time use, as well as short-term memory loss. However, it also displays the effectiveness of cocaine detox and treatment on the recovery of short-term memory.
Yes, brain damage caused by drugs is reversible, to an extent. Unfortunately, as we pointed out before, not all damage caused by drug abuse goes away.
Not only can cocaine cause memory loss, but it’s also notorious for creating a chemical imbalance in the brain, just like most drugs of abuse. Most drugs of abuse stimulate the release of dopamine, slowly depleting the brain’s storage of it and its ability to manage dopamine levels.
In the long run, this unnatural and continuous release of dopamine contributes to addiction. What’s more, the cutting agents and other ingredients used to make cocaine also contribute to issues like vasoconstriction and high blood pressure, each of which can contribute to brain damage.
The good news is that some brain damage caused by drugs can be healed thanks to neuroplasticity. This refers to the brain’s ability to learn, modify, and change both its structure and function as we experience new things.
When a person with a drug addiction receives outpatient or inpatient drug treatment, they cease their use of drugs and give their brain the ability to heal. Over time, as the individual learns how to live a life without drugs, the brain slowly becomes accustomed to sobriety.
However, many people in recovery may struggle with drug cravings and temptation from time to time, which is why professional treatment and peer support are especially helpful. Addiction is a chronic illness that, although treatable, is not entirely curable. Even so, it is possible for someone who’s been addicted to drugs or alcohol in the past to live a sober and fulfilling life.
At our drug rehab in Palm Springs, CA, we aim to help our patients understand their conditions, learn how to manage them independently, and overcome them. By utilizing various levels of substance abuse treatment, including inpatient and outpatient options, we’re able to help everyone who walks through our doors, no matter the severity of their condition.