How Cocaine Works in the Brain & Body Video

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  • 0:02 Cocaine
  • 1:47 Cocaine And The Brain
  • 5:15 Cocaine And The Body
  • 7:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Cocaine is an addictive, psychoactive, stimulant drug. It can cause both psychological and physical dependence. This lesson explains how cocaine works in the brain and the body.


Flake, snow, candy, blow, stash. What are we talking about? These are all street names for cocaine. Cocaine is a powerfully addictive, psychoactive, stimulant drug. Some studies report that just one use of cocaine can lead to addiction.

Cocaine has several different properties. As a psychoactive drug, it affects the brain to alter mood, behavior, perception, and cognitive processing. Other psychoactive drugs you've probably heard of include ecstasy, heroin, and marijuana.

Cocaine is best known for being a stimulant drug. Stimulants produce extra brain activity, increase alertness, and promote a sense of well-being and are sometimes called 'uppers.' Other stimulant drugs include methamphetamine and Ritalin.

Cocaine is a Schedule II drug, meaning it's classified by the federal government as having a high potential for abuse and potential for severe psychological or physical dependence. Though Schedule II drugs have a high potential for addiction and abuse, they can be administered by a physician for legitimate medical purposes. That may sound surprising, since cocaine certainly isn't a typically prescribed drug. However, cocaine was once popularly used as a local anesthetic. Today, safer alternatives, such as lidocaine, are used. Schedule II drugs are considered to be the second most dangerous group of drugs.

Cocaine and the Brain

Let's take a closer look at why cocaine is considered to be so dangerous. First, let's examine cocaine's effect on the human brain.

Cocaine affects three naturally-occurring chemicals in the brain. These chemicals are neurotransmitters, which are brain chemicals that communicate information throughout the brain and body. Neurotransmitters transmit signals between nerve cells. For example, the brain uses neurotransmitters to signal your lungs to breathe.

There are two main categories of neurotransmitters. Excitatory transmitters are those that stimulate the brain. Inhibitory transmitters are those that calm the brain.

Cocaine affects three major neurotransmitters:

  • Dopamine
  • Serotonin
  • Adrenaline

Let's examine each of these. Dopamine plays a few different roles in the brain. But for the most part, dopamine releases into the brain to elicit feelings of reward and pleasure. For example, dopamine releases into many people's brains when eating a delicious meal. Dopamine is a special neurotransmitter, because it works as both an excitatory and an inhibitory transmitter.

Serotonin influences mood, appetite, and anger. This neurotransmitter also influences certain body functions like sleep cycles, body temperature, and blood pressure. Serotonin is an inhibitory transmitter.

Finally, adrenaline is responsible for the body's fight or flight response. A rush of adrenaline automatically increases the heart rate, triggers the release of glucose from energy stores, and increases blood flow to skeletal muscle. For instance, many people feel a sudden rush of adrenaline when surprised by a loud clap of thunder. Adrenaline is an excitatory transmitter.

So, when a person uses cocaine, these three neurotransmitters are quickly released into the brain. Usually, the neurotransmitters are reabsorbed soon after release. However, cocaine hinders this process. Instead, the chemicals accumulate in the brain. The accumulation causes the person to feel rewarded, euphoric, and energized. However, users can also feel fearful and jittery.

Note that each person has a limited supply of neurotransmitters. Once used, the body must take time to produce more. This is why users often end up feeling fatigued and depressed. It's also why first time drug users often achieve a more intense effect than is achieved on repeat uses.

This effect on the brain often leads to psychological dependence. Psychological dependence refers to a perceived need for a substance, based on a strong compulsion or urge to use the substance. The body may not physically depend on the drug, but the mind does. Psychological dependence normally requires rehabilitation in order to recover. Rehabilitation teaches the skills and coping techniques required to ward off desires and cravings for the substance.

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