The chemistry of cocaine addiction

Crack, free-base, and powderThe cocaine high is a marvel of biochemical efficiency. Cocaine works primarily by blocking the reuptake of dopamine molecules in the synaptic gap between nerve cells. Dopamine remains stalled in the gap, stimulating the receptors, resulting in higher dopamine concentrations and greater sensitivity to dopamine in general.Since dopamine is involved in moods and activities such as pleasure, alertness and movement, the primary results of using cocaine–euphoria, a sense of well being, physical alertness, and increased energy—are easily understood. Even a layperson can tell when lab rats have been on a cocaine binge. The rapid movements, sniffing, and sudden rearing at minor stimuli are not that much different in principle from the outward signs of cocaine intoxication among higher primates.Chemically, cocaine and amphetamine are very different compounds. Psychoactively, however, they are very much alike. Of all the addictive drugs, cocaine and speed have the most direct and most devastatingly euphoric effect on the dopamine systems of the brain. Writing in the November 2004 issue of Synapse, Jonathan D. Brodie and colleagues at the New York University School of Medicine reported that “A rapid elevation in nucleus accumbens dopamine characterizes the neurochemical response to cocaine, methamphetamine, and other drugs of abuse.”In the late 1990s, scientists at Johns Hopkins and NIDA had shown that opiate receptors play a role in cocaine addiction as well. PET scans demonstrated that cocaine addicts showed increased binding activity at mu opiate receptors sites in the brain during active cocaine addiction. Take away the cocaine, and the brain must cope with too many empty dopamine and endorphin receptors.Cocaine and amphetamine produce rapid classical conditioning in addicts, demonstrated by the intense cravings touched off by such stimuli as the sight of a building where the user used to buy or sell. Environmental impacts of this nature can produce marked blood flow increases to key limbic structures in abstinent addicts.When the crack “epidemic” first became news, it was clear that the old specialty of free-basing was now within reach of existing cocaine users. No paraphernalia needed except for a small pipe; no more butane and mixing; no muss, no fuss. Like basing, smoking crack was a drug dealer’s dream. The “rush” from smoking crack was more potent, but even more transient, than the short-lived high from nasal ingestionBoth the cocaine high and the amphetamine high are easily augmented with cigarettes or heroin. These combinations result in “nucleus accumbens dopamine overflow,” a state of neurochemical super saturation similar to the results obtained with the notorious “speedball”—heroin plus cocaine.It has been clear for more than a decade that most cocaine treatment programs are failures. In the case of the newly arrived crack cocaine, relapse rates after formal treatment sometimes approach one hundred per cent. Clearly, a piece of the puzzle has been missing. If receptors were the sites that controlled how drugs affected the mind, and if genes controlled how receptors were grown, then one implication of all the receptor theories was that sensitivity to addictive drugs could conceivably have a genetic basis. It was a large step in the right direction, because there were already good reasons for seeing alcoholism and other addictions as inherited dysfunctions in brain chemistry.–Excerpted from Addiction: The Search for a Cure © Dirk Hanson 2007Photo Credit: Legal Drug Alternatives (Source: Addiction Inbox)

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