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Cocaine abuse may actually accelerate brain aging

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All drugs affect your brain differently... that's assuming, of course, that these drugs have a brain to affect in the first place.

New research reveals that the grey matter of chronic cocaine users actually melts away at an accelerated rate, suggesting that the brain of a cocaine addict ages faster than that of someone who abstains from the addictive stimulant.


When it comes to brain matter, studies suggest that it's the grey stuff that really counts. (The other "stuff," in this instance, is white matter. The two can be roughly distinguished in the image below; grey matter is seen undulating along the outer regions, while white matter dominates the inner, lighter-colored areas of the cross-section.) Higher volumes of grey matter in the brains of the elderly, for example, are associated with superior cognitive abilities. No such correlation has been observed for white matter.


In a study published in today's issue of Molecular Psychiatry, University of Cambridge neuroscientist Karen Ersche and her colleagues compared the loss of grey matter in the brains of 60 cocaine-dependent volunteers against that of 60 subjects with no history of substance abuse.

The difference was staggering.

The team found that cocaine users lost an average of over 3 milliliters of grey matter per year. The non-users, on the other hand, lost an average of just 1.69 ml per year. What's more, the accelerated loss in brain volume was shown to be most pronounced in the prefrontal and temporal cortex — regions of the brain important for things like attention, decision-making, and memory.


"As we age, we all lose grey matter," explained Ersche in a press release. "However, what we have seen is that chronic cocaine users lose grey matter at a significantly faster rate, which could be a sign of premature aging." She continues:

Our findings therefore provide new insight into why the cognitive deficits typically seen in old age have frequently been observed in middle aged chronic users of cocaine [and] clearly highlight the need for preventative strategies to address the risk of premature aging associated with cocaine abuse. Young people taking cocaine today need to be educated about the long-term risk of aging prematurely.


The researchers' findings are published in today's issue of Molecular Psychiatry.

Top image via Shutterstock