While addictive behaviors may seem like voluntary actions and choices, the brain of an addict works in much the same way as the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. Once the disease takes root, the brain continues to deteriorate unless a person receives some form of treatment. Cocaine addiction effects are no different.
An addiction to cocaine progresses rapidly as brain functions give way to the overwhelming effects of the drug. From there, the negative symptoms of the addiction perpetuate the addiction cycle. Even in cases where a person takes steps to stop using, an addiction to cocaine can leave him or her at risk of relapse for years to come.
The Dopamine Pathway
As a central nervous system stimulant, cocaine effects target the brain’s dopamine pathway. According to Bryn Mawr College, dopamine acts as a primary neurotransmitter chemical responsible for regulating just about every major chemical process in the body. The dopamine pathway regulates pain and pleasure sensations as part of person’s learning process through the brain reward system. Positive experiences produce dopamine secretions in the brain while negative experiences do not. In effect, any positive experience is automatically reinforced by the dopamine pathway process.
While positive experiences normally activate the dopamine pathway, certain psychoactive drugs, such as cocaine can also set the learning process in motion. Cocaine naturally binds to dopamine receptor sites and triggers dopamine secretions. The drug also prevents brain cells from reabsorbing (and conserving) secreted dopamine chemicals. This excess of dopamine produced by an addiction to cocaine accounts for the feelings of euphoria and energy a person experiences when using.
The dopamine pathway naturally interprets this process as positive, meaning every time a person uses cocaine he or she reinforces the brain’s “reward” pathway response. In effect, an addiction to cocaine becomes an ongoing learning process that alters brain function and reinforces ongoing drug use.
The Negative Emotional State
With ongoing cocaine use, the brain’s dopamine receptors become unable to produce dopamine secretions on their own. As a result, the brain requires increasingly larger dosage amounts to not only achieve the same “high” effects, but also to function normally. At this point, physical dependency has set in. Ultimately, an addiction to cocaine causes overall dopamine levels to fall way below normal whenever drug usage is reduced or stopped.
When dosage amounts don’t meet the brain’s needs, a negative emotional state develops fairly quickly. This state leaves a person feeling emotionally low or “down in the dumps.” An addiction to cocaine drives a person to keep using in order to avoid this negative emotional state.
Over time, addiction to cocaine works like a stronghold that overpowers a person’s ability to manage his or her life. This stronghold effect stays with recovering addicts for years after their last use. In effect, addiction to cocaine creates ongoing drug cravings that can result in multiple relapse episodes.
This potential for relapse continues until a person’s brain and body processes heal from the damaging effects of long-term cocaine use. As the brain’s dopamine brain receptor cells regain normal functioning capacity, the potential for chronic relapsing subsides.