Cocaine Causes Your Brain To Literally Eat Itself, Study Finds

High doses kick your cells' cannibalism function into gear.

01/21/2016 11:18 am ET
Brookhaven National Laboratory via Getty Images
A look at brain activity during cocaine use.

We know cocaine's not so good for your brain, but it turns out the effects of the popular drug are more gruesome than we thought. A new study from Johns Hopkins University finds that high doses of cocaine cause your brain cells to kill themselves.  

In a new study involving mice, researchers found cocaine can kill brain cells by triggering "overactive autophagy," the process by which cells digest their own insides. They also observed this phenomenon in the brains of mice whose mothers were given cocaine while pregnant.  

But it's not all bad news: The findings also point toward a potential treatment for the issue using an experimental chemical compound. 

"We performed 'autopsies' to find out how cells die from high doses of cocaine," Solomon Snyder, professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and one of the study's authors, said in a statement. "That information gave us immediate insight into how we might use a known compound to interfere with that process and prevent the damage."

For the study, the researchers examined nerve cells in the brains of the mice. They observed that the cells of the mice that had been exposed to cocaine "committed suicide," (yes, you read that right) in one of several known ways of doing so that are chemically programmed into the cell.

The researchers observed that the cells were killing themselves through a process known as autophagy. In healthy cells, autophagy occurs as a normal "clean-up" process during which the cell rids itself of debris that accumulates in membrane-contained "bags" within the cell. These bags meld with other bags that are filled with acid, which destroy the contents of the bags. 

While this process normally doesn't cause cell death, when it accelerates and spirals out of control, the cell ends up cannibalizing itself.

"Autophagy is a very delicate process," Dr. Prasun Guha, a post-doctoral fellow at the university and an author of the study, told The Huffington Post. "Controlled autophagy is used to clean up cell debris and help cell[s] to survive. However, uncontrolled autophagy is detrimental."

By measuring changes in cell protein levels and observing changes in the actual cells, the researchers concluded that the cocaine led to cell death via runaway autophagy.

Next, the researchers tested several chemicals known to prevent cellular suicide, and they found that one in particular -- the compound CGP3466B -- could prevent out-of-control autophagy.

These findings aren't entirely surprising, Dr. William D. Stanley, medical director of the New Jersey-based addiction treatment center Serenity at Summit Behavioral Health, told Mic News

"We have known for years that cocaine, a stimulant, has had a negative effect on cells," he said. 

Still, this new study could pave the way for future treatment options. With further research, clinicians might one day be able to use this compound to protect infants exposed to cocaine in utero, as well as adults, from the toxic effects of cocaine on the brain. 

"It's important to know the exact mode of cell death," Guha explained. "We now know that autophagic cell death is exclusive for cocaine's neuronal toxicity, so developing drugs against autophagy could be beneficial."

The findings were published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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