If you asked someone to name five illicit substances off the top of their head, odds are cocaine would be one of the first drugs to come to mind. That fact boils down popularity: both in the real world and in Hollywood. It seems after alcohol and nicotine, cocaine is the most commonly depicted mind-altering substance found in films and television shows- who could forget the giant mound of cocaine Tony Montana sniffed in ‘Scarface’, or all the cocaine in Johnny Depp’s ‘Blow’? There’s dozens of other examples, of course, but the point is cocaine is often depicted as a symbol of a character’s power or downfall, depending on the direction of the film.
But why is that? We know cocaine can cause some pretty severe mental and physical side effects:
- Bizarre and sometimes violent behavior
- Delirium or psychosis
- Severe tooth decay
- Liver, kidney, and lung damage
- Malnutrition, weight loss
- Increased heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure
- Abrupt mood swings
- Permanent damage to blood vessels in the heart and brain
- Respiratory failure (if smoked)
That should be enough to deter most people from using cocaine, but the problem is they often don’t know the risks before trying it out. Additionally, we have the tendency to think of ourselves as somewhat above the risks and invincible- but that’s not true. Addiction, overdose, severe damage to one’s health: no one is immune to the effects of substance abuse. Testing your luck is unwise and discouraged; you never know when your luck will run out.
You know what else you probably didn’t know? Cocaine makes your brain cannibalize itself! Woohoo! So much fun, right?
…No? Yeah, didn’t think so.
This new revelation came from a recent study of mice under the influence of cocaine, performed at John Hopkins University, which found that the powerful stimulant causes autophagy in the brain. Now, autophagy is a naturally occurring process in the body; we use it every day without knowing it as enzymes dissolve debris in the body. However, use of cocaine disturbs this natural process, causing it to attack important things- you know, like brain cells.
As explained by the leader of the study, Dr. Prasun Guha:
“Autophagy is the housekeeper that takes out the trash. Usually it’s a good thing. But cocaine makes the housekeeper throw away really important things, like mitochondria, which produce energy throughout the cell.”
Also, it found that the offspring of the mice who experienced autophagy due to cocaine exhibited the same effects despite not being directly exposed to it.
So what does that mean for humans? Well, one of the reasons mice are often used in science is because several of their organs closely match the form and function as the human equivalents: the brain of mice is a perfect example. The same brain cannibalism that occurs in the mice in this study can appear in people who use and abuse cocaine. This could help to explain the above listed mental and physical effects of cocaine abuse and only serves to cement the fact that addiction is a disorder.