What the Brain Looks Like on Cocaine

That cocaine damages the brain should come as no surprise, but what researchers have done recently is make detailed images of just how much damage this drug can do. A new and exciting imaging technique is allowing researchers to see much more detail in the brains of mice being fed cocaine. Researchers can even see the damage done to the tiniest of blood vessels, called capillaries. Being able to track the flow of blood in the brain in such detail will help researchers better understand what drugs do in the brain and to develop better treatments for addicts.

Cocaine and Brain Bleeding

Researchers and doctors have long known that cocaine can cause serious problems with bleeding in the brain. Cocaine use can lead to bleeding that appears to behave like an aneurysm, or a weak spot in a blood vessel. It also leads to stroke, a loss of blood to one part of the brain either caused by a blockage or by an aneurysm. What researchers did not know is how this bleeding happens and why strokes are caused by cocaine.

New Brain Images

Up until now, the imaging techniques that researchers used to peer inside the brains of drug users, both human and animal, have been limited. No technique has been sensitive enough to get images of the smallest capillaries and the damage done to them by cocaine use. Researchers from Stony Brook University and the National Institutes of Health have developed a new imaging technique that can finally see those little blood vessels.

The new technique is called optical coherence Doppler tomography, or ODT. It uses a laser that bounces off of moving blood cells. In other words, it can trace the flow of blood in blood vessels in the brain, even the smallest capillaries. What the researchers found with ODT used in mice with chronic cocaine habits was that the cocaine caused blood in capillaries to slow down significantly.

Most importantly, with ODT the researchers were able to identify blood vessels in which the blood flow had been shut down due to cocaine use. This shutdown is called a microischemia and occurs before a stroke. For the first time, researchers were able to see exactly how cocaine affects blood flow in the brain and how its use leads to a stroke.

Using ODT to measure and view the effects of cocaine on the brain is only the beginning of the usefulness of this new imaging tool. Being able to see the movement of blood in the smallest blood vessels in the brain is crucial to understanding how the brain works. It helps us to understand how different kinds of stimuli, including drugs, impact the brain. The new imaging technique could revolutionize how researchers study the brain, and the effects should be far-reaching.

Understanding how cocaine affects the brain is exciting and important. It will help inform further studies, directing researchers to new areas of work. It will also help us understand how other drugs affect the brain and blood flow. In terms of cocaine specifically, it could help researchers learn how to better treat cocaine addiction and the devastating side effects of cocaine use, including strokes and aneurysms. The more we understand about blood flow in the brain in response to drug use, the better able researchers will be to develop treatments that really help addicts.

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