A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week shows that high doses of cocaine can cause the brain to ‘eat itself’.
Cocaine is a class A drug and is highly addictive. After cannabis it is the most frequently used illegal drug. Low doses can lead some people to feel energetic, talkative and alert among many other symptoms. However, when taken in large amounts it can lead to a variety negative consequences, such as psychiatric disorders. In both cases physical symptoms include high blood pressure and body temperature.
This study, conducted on mice, has added another detrimental side effect to cocaine use: autophagy. Autophagy is the process via which cells digest themselves. In some cases, believe it or not, this can be a useful and beneficial process in the body. For example autophagy is a useful way of getting rid of unwanted debris.
The lead author of the study, Dr Prasun Guha, from the John Hopkins University School of Medicine,used the analogy of a cell being like a household. Autophagy is comparable to a housekeeper removing rubbish. However, when cocaine is used essential organelles, such as the mitochondria are removed from the cells in the brain.
A particularly interesting finding of the research was that the damage was not confined to an individual mouse. When cocaine was used in high doses in pregnant females their offspring brain also affected.
An experimental drug (known as CGP3466B) was shown to be able to confer protection from autophagy to the nerve cells of the mice. The drug is already known to be safe for human use as a result of clinical trials for the treatment of Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease. However further research needs to be carried out to ensure its beneficial effects also occur in humans. The team suggest that a more targeted approach may be required in humans.
Photo: Vasiliy Yakobchuk