Effect of Cocaine on Teenage Brain Development

Effect of Cocaine on Teenage Brain Development

Effect of Cocaine on Teenage Brain Development

Effect of Cocaine on Teenage Brain Development Cocaine is an illegal stimulant drug commonly available in the United States in a powered form called cocaine hydrochloride and a chemically modified, rock-like form known as “crack cocaine” or simply “crack.” Regardless of their age, all cocaine users have significant risks for developing a variety of serious health complications, including acute cocaine intoxication (also known as a cocaine overdose). However, teenage brains are more sensitive to the effects of cocaine than adult brains, and teenagers who use the drug can also develop problems with several different aspects of normal brain development.

Understanding Cocaine’s Basic Effects

Cocaine achieves many of its basic effects in the brain by altering normal function in the limbic system (also known as the mesolimbic pathway), a group of brain structures that, when activated, triggers varying degrees of the intense form of pleasure known as euphoria. This system is activated by heightened levels of a chemical called dopamine, which promotes communication between the individual cells (neurons) that form the limbic structures. When cocaine molecules enter the brain, they increase dopamine supplies by blocking the recycling process that usually returns dopamine levels to normal in the aftermath of any given pleasurable experience.

In addition to its role in the limbic system, dopamine plays an important role in the production of normal emotional responses to changing circumstances, the ability to properly control movement, the ability to retain new information, and the ability to sustain normal levels of goal-oriented motivation. As part of its effect on dopamine levels, cocaine can also alter normal function in the brain areas responsible for these functions. Apart from its dopamine-increasing effects, cocaine also increases levels of brain chemicals called norepinephrine and serotonin. In turn, heightened levels of these chemicals produce alterations in mood and trigger a variety of body changes (including increased blood flow to the muscles, increased situational awareness, and a faster heart rate) associated with the “fight-or-flight” response.

Teenage Brain Development

In terms of its development, the average teenage brain is about 80 percent complete. While the major structures are in place, the brain does not yet contain all of the nerve connections required to make those structures work together at peak efficiency. Some of the nerve connections made during adolescence influence the ability to perform relatively basic physical tasks, such as fully coordinating the brain’s conscious commands with desired body movements and properly gauging spatial relationships between the body and the surrounding environment. Other connections involve more mentally oriented things such as an improved control over impulsive behaviors, an increased ability to use rational decision-making, an increased ability to plan for the future, and an increased ability to make short-term sacrifices for long-term goals. As a rule, these higher-level nerve connections develop later than the more physically oriented nerve connections.

Cocaine’s Influence

Developing teenage brains are considerably more sensitive to the effects of cocaine than fully developed adult brains, according to a study presented in 2010 by the Society for Neuroscience, as well a separate Yale University study published in 2012 in the Journal of Neuroscience. When initially exposed to cocaine, the teenage brain tries to protect itself by altering the shape and sensitivity of cocaine-susceptible neurons. However, when these protective efforts fail, the intensity of the drug’s effects increases by roughly 300 percent.

Inside the teenage limbic system, repeated cocaine use triggers long-term alterations in the ways the brain experiences pleasure; it also reduces the user’s ability to learn from fear-based experiences and modify his or her future behaviors accordingly. In combination, these brain changes increase the chances for involvement in impulsive, risky behaviors during adulthood. In turn, an increased tendency toward impulsivity and risk-taking can heighten an affected individual’s chances of getting involved a variety of dangerous activities, including continued drug use, alcohol abuse, unprotected sex, and the commission of crimes.


Teenage brains have varying abilities to alter their neurons and protect themselves from the effects of cocaine. Although it may seem counterintuitive, teenagers who receive relatively low levels of this natural protection during their initial encounters with cocaine may have lower chances of developing a future addiction than teenagers who receive relatively high levels of protection. This is true because teens with greater initial sensitivities to cocaine have higher chances of experiencing the unpleasant side effects associated with cocaine use; in turn, these unpleasant experiences may deter them from further experimentation with the drug. On the other hand, teens with lower initial cocaine sensitivities may not experience a lot of unpleasant side effects, and therefore may decide to continue their cocaine use.

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