Find out how medical professionals are learning about the effects of cocaine on the brain after a man was hospitalized for a year due to cocaine use.

new medical report may illustrate how cocaine impacts brain functions.

The report, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), describes a 45-year-old man who regularly used cocaine being admitted to the emergency room with confusion and mental disorientation. He was unable to perform regular bodily functions. After admission, he underwent several tests and eventually deteriorated into a catatonic state. MRI tests showed a rare condition called inflammatory leukoencephalopathy. The man required significant rehabilitation for a full year before showing complete recovery.

Learning how cocaine affects the brain can help explain the dramatic turn of events. Information published in the Science and Practice Perspectives journal explains that cocaine is addictive because it stimulates dopamine, which gives the person a feeling of euphoria. Dopamine may also lead to compulsive behaviors and other neurological cues. Because cocaine impacts the limbic system, long-term cocaine use can impact memory and a person’s emotions. Genes play a role in cocaine addiction and cocaine use critically alters the way the brain works.

Cocaine Use Leads to Hospitalization

Research published in the Experimental Biology and Medicine Journal indicates that cocaine affects the brain, nervous system and immune systems. Cocaine stimulates the central nervous system. When the man in the BMJ study was admitted to the hospital with erratic physical and psychological symptoms, doctors thought he might have had an infection that impacted his central nervous system. The research published in the Experimental Biology and Medicine Journal explains that evidence exists tying nervous system damage to cocaine use due to changes in dopamine signaling. The changes can deteriorate the nervous system and lead to multiple illnesses. Cocaine abuse symptoms may include severe neurological damage, immune suppression and loss of limb control or decreased motor skills.

Cocaine Treatment Lasted A Full Year

The man who was hospitalized for cocaine abuse had to receive intensive medical care and therapy for a calendar year until he regained normal physical functions. The ways that cocaine affects the brain include long-term effects that required medical care. The medical professionals who published the study marveled that the man recovered at all. Long-term cocaine use can negatively impair brain function to such a degree that someone loses the ability to process information or communicate. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has published studies that highlight the permanently altered state of the brain when someone abuses cocaine for a significant length of time. Dangers include elevation of stress hormones, a decreased ability to make decisions and a lack of mental ability to adapt to situations.

Doctors Still Unsure Why Cocaine Causes a Catatonic State

In the case of the man who was hospitalized for a year with extreme symptoms of cocaine use, doctors still don’t understand why he lapsed into a catatonic state or how he recovered. Catatonic state treatment is usually administered to people who struggle with schizophrenia.

Treatment for people in catatonic states include:

  • Antipsychotic medication
  • Care to prevent aspiration, dehydration, ulcers and other side effects of being stationary
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Glutamate antagonists
  • Electroconvulsive therapy
  • Magnetic stimulation

Cocaine abuse may not typically lead to catatonia, but the drug’s use comes with many other, potentially dangerous risk factors.

Dangers of Cocaine Use

Cocaine use has many dangerous side effects, including:

  • Mental health issues, including changes in mood or delusions
  • Financial strain from buying cocaine can lead people to legal trouble
  • Health issues, including brain, nose, blood vessel and lung problems
  • Addiction

Signs of cocaine abuse may include evidence of use such as damaged blood vessels in the nose or erratic behavior where someone withdrawals and returns frequently. As was the case of the many hospitalized for a year, cocaine can affect people in unexpected ways. Avoiding consuming cocaine is the best way to avoid any negative side effects. Unfortunately, stopping using cocaine is difficult for many people.

When to Get Help for Cocaine Addiction

Cocaine addiction will likely require professional treatment. The signs of cocaine addiction may include cocaine use after the dangerous consequences are recognized. Because of the way cocaine deteriorates the brain, symptoms of cocaine use may worsen as time goes on and include:

  • Extreme mood swings
  • Hyperactivity followed by a crash
  • A compulsion to continue using cocaine
  • Preoccupation with obtaining and using the drug
  • An inability to stop using cocaine

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By – Joy Youell
Joy Youell is a writer and content developer with a background in educational research. Using sound pedagogical approaches and expert-backed methods, Joy has designed and delivered adult learning content, professional development, and company training materials for organizations. Read more
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Editor – Daron Christopher
Daron Christopher is an experienced speechwriter, copywriter and communications consultant based in Washington, DC. Read more

Abdilla, Ylenia; et al. “Cocaine-induced toxic leukoencephalopath[…]te clinical recovery.” British Medical Journal, July 2019. Accessed August 24, 2019.

Marasco, Christina C; et al. “Systems-Level View of Cocaine Addiction:[…] and Nervous Systems.” Experimental Biology and Medicine, November 1, 2015. Accessed August 24, 2019.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What are some ways that cocaine changes the brain?” Updated May 2016. Accessed August 24, 2019.

Nestler, Eric J. “The Neurobiology of Cocaine Addiction.” Science and Practice Perspectives, December 2005. Accessed August 24, 2019.

Sienaert, Pascal; et al. “A Clinical Review of the Treatment of Catatonia.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, December 9, 2014. Accessed August 24, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.