Cocaine May Cause Brain Cells to Destroy Themselves
New research on mice suggests that high doses of cocaine can cause brain cells to literally digest themselves by sending a natural garbage-clearing process of the brain into overdrive.
In a study to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at Johns Hopkins University describe how they found high doses of cocaine in mouse brains can cause a process called autophagy–where waste materials are digested–to become hyperactive.
Even mice born to mothers who had been given cocaine when they were pregnant showed signs of hyperactive autophagy in their brain cells. Dr. Prasun Guha, one of the researchers explained: “Autophagy is the housekeeper that takes out the trash – it’s usually a good thing. But cocaine makes the housekeeper throw away really important things, like mitochondria, which produce energy for the cell.”
The team measured changes in protein levels that are known to trigger the cell-death program and watched what happened in brain cells as the protein levels changed in response to cocaine. They could clearly see that high doses of cocaine triggered the death of neurons by sending autophagy into overdrive.
While more study is needed with both mice and humans, the team hopes the findings will lead to treatments that protect adults and babies from this effect cocaine can cause in the brain.
Don’t miss this week’s Slice of History: Prohibition Kicks In.