Cocaine May Play a Role in Depression: Here’s How

Many people who suffer from depression and have used cocaine a long time may experience depressive episodes at a higher rate than others. Scientists believe it is linked to damage the drug does to brain cells which make people feel high when they do cocaine. Damaging and killing these brain cells that could help the person feel pleasure may be related to higher rates of depression.

Role of Dopamine Neurons

When cocaine is used it increases the level of dopamine in the brain, creating a high that users may feel but prolonged use of the drug reduces dopamine levels. Feeling positive feelings is harder when the brain’s neurons are not able to function optimally. The question facing people then is whether the cells are dormant or damaged, and whether or not the effect is reversible or permanent.

Long-Term Studies

Samples of brain tissue in studies have been reviewed from autopsies of people who used cocaine and compared to those who did not use. The tissue was analyzed for dopamine and the protein VMAT2, which is found in dopamine transporters. Urine or semen samples were analyzed for the presence of cocaine, opioids, antidepressants, and antipsychotic medications. Getting information from the family and friends of the person who was deceased also helped fill in gaps on their use and life history.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Researchers found cocaine users had lower concentrations of dopamine and VMAT2 in their brains than people who did not use. Cocaine users suffering from depression had lower levels of VMAT2 than those who were not depressed. The data provides a good biochemical bias for cocaine withdrawal symptoms.

Brain Changes

It is not certain whether dopamine cells were destroyed or just dysregulated by cocaine use. Trying to reduce the amount of dopamine that’s released by reducing the ability to collect it may be related to actual damage or death of dopamine neurons. The fragility of the brain’s neurons can be more severely highlighted by painful cycles of cocaine abuse which seek to destroy everything it comes in contact with, making it a challenging issue. There is hope for people who struggle with depression related to cocaine use, even amidst these results. As researchers look at more studies to confirm what happens to the brain’s neurons following cocaine use, there may be help in the development of effective treatment interventions and pharmacotherapies to support people who struggle.

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