Cocaine is a potent stimulant drug that alters activity within the brain’s reward system, which is located in the limbic system. Cocaine acts on this system by increasing the activity of dopamine, an important neurotransmitter, or brain signaling molecule, involved with several different brain processes, including those that prompt sensations of pleasure and reward.1 This euphoric feeling increases a user’s motivation to continue using cocaine, thus creating a cycle of problematic drug abuse that can escalate to cocaine addiction. Although cocaine is highly addictive, not everyone who uses it will become addicted. The addictive potential of cocaine for each person depends on a number of factors, such as genes, environmental risk factors, protective factors, and more.
If you suffer from a cocaine addiction, you may find it difficult to quit on your own. This is where professional cocaine detox and addiction treatment programs come in. Entering detox followed by a comprehensive recovery program is a highly recommended way to stop using cocaine and help ensure your health and overall well-being.
The limbic system consists of several key brain regions (such as the nucleus accumbens) that together play a role in a variety of functions, including mood and motivation. Dopamine is a key neurotransmitter that stimulates the limbic system and triggers feelings of reward and pleasure related to pro-survival behaviors, such as eating and having sex. Cells that are responsive to dopamine are highly concentrated in the limbic system, particularly so in the nucleus accumbens.2
Under normal circumstances, your body manufactures and releases the requisite amount of dopamine needed to regulate many neurobiological processes and keep brain cells operating at optimal levels. Dopamine is manufactured by brain cells known as dopaminergic neurons. This important substance helps to regulate the pace of nerve cells — it is necessary for helping people stay motivated to accomplish goals, increasing muscle activity when needed, and helping your brain work faster in certain situations.2
Dopamine works by attaching to different receptors throughout the brain. Dopamine receptors are located on the surface of certain neurons, or brain cells. When a neuron releases a neurotransmitter, the chemical travels across the synapse, or space between neurons, where it latches onto the receptor of another brain cell. When this receptor is bound to and activated by a dopamine molecule, the brain cell that the receptor is on the surface of essentially receives a message from the dopaminergic neuron that originally released it. In this way, dopamine helps to relay information across the synapse. Normally, this is a smooth process that helps you function normally, but cocaine interferes with this process by causing a build-up of excess dopamine in the synapse, where it remains more active than it otherwise would.3
Cocaine’s effects on dopamine activity create a highly reinforcing environment that encourages people to continue abusing the drug. The nucleus accumbens appears to be the area of the brain most responsible for the dopamine-mediated cocaine high. When you use cocaine, the abnormally elevated dopamine activity that results causes a disruption in the information relaying process. Your nervous system becomes overstimulated as a result of too much dopamine, and the cells in the nucleus accumbens respond by producing feelings of euphoria and intense pleasure.2 This reinforces your desire to use cocaine because your brain is wired to make sure that you repeat experiences that cause pleasure and feelings of reward.3 Sometimes, if the addiction is severe enough, users will prioritize cocaine use above other pro-survival behaviors, leading to a deterioration of physical and mental health.
Genes are often referred to as the blueprint for life, and this is because they are the drivers of heredity and are responsible for determining countless individual characteristics. Every cell in your body has roughly 30,000 genes that provide instructions for manufacturing cellular proteins — the building blocks of your body. Each cell expresses, or turns on, just a small amount of the full genetic material contained within. Whether a gene is expressed depends on many factors.2 Gene expression can change depending on environmental factors (including food), exposure to toxins, or the presence of drugs in the body.4 Cocaine abuse can impact the expression of numerous genes in the limbic system.5
When researchers refer to the “addiction gene,” they are actually examining specific biological differences that can make someone more susceptible to addiction. There isn’t just one gene that predicts and causes addiction — scientists believe that multiple genes, combined with environmental risk factors, can influence addiction. They also believe certain genes may be linked to specific addictions. For example, the A1 allele (or variant form of a gene) of the dopamine receptor gene known as DRD2 is more common in people who are addicted to cocaine.6 Additionally, research has revealed that mice without HTR1B, a serotonin receptor gene, are more likely to self-administer cocaine. Genes work as a protective factor as well; mice without a certain subunit of nicotinic cholinergic receptors experience diminished pleasure when exposed to cocaine.6 In this way, your specific genes can influence whether you continue to use cocaine after trying it and to what degree you respond to the drug.
Another particular genetic component affected by cocaine abuse that has been of interest to researchers is a protein known as ΔFosB. This protein is a pace-setting chemical like dopamine, but unlike dopamine, it doesn’t leave the cell where it was manufactured. Instead, it remains in the cell and stimulates certain genes. Long-term exposure to cocaine causes ΔFosB to increase in the cell. This buildup has been closely correlated to addiction. In experimental studies with mice exposed to cocaine, researchers found that elevated levels of ΔFosB produced behaviors that resembled addiction—including cravings and self-administering of the drug. The effects of cocaine on ΔFosB are long-lasting.2
In other words, repeated exposure to cocaine can produce important genetic and biochemical changes that can affect your chances of developing an addiction.
When you use cocaine regularly, your body adapts to the excess levels of active dopamine caused by cocaine use. It starts producing less on its own, since it has more than enough. It also may reduce the number of postsynaptic receptors that receive dopamine. As long you keep using cocaine, your nervous system maintains a feeling of continuous reward. At this point, problems may begin to arise when you stop using cocaine, because your natural dopamine production has decreased. Without cocaine, your dopamine activity can become extremely low; should this occur, you may be unable to experience pleasure and may feel depressed.3
With repeated exposure to the drug, you can build up a tolerance to cocaine. This means that you need to use higher amounts or more frequent doses of the drug in order to achieve the same, desired results. In attempts to overcome an ever-increasing tolerance with increasing drug use, you may hasten the development of cocaine dependence. This means that your body requires the drug in order to function properly and you are likely to experience withdrawal symptoms if you abruptly stop using. Chronic cocaine abuse, and the accompanying development of both tolerance and significant physiological dependence can lead to or promote the development of addiction.
Cocaine addiction means that you continue using despite the negative consequences it has on your overall life and well-being. A person who is addicted to cocaine may exhibit certain indicators, such as:7
Remember that environmental factors and your unique genetic makeup influence the development of cocaine addiction. Whether you live in an area where cocaine is easily available also plays a role—after all, if you cannot readily access cocaine, you’re less likely to become addicted to it. In any given area, the availability of cocaine may be determined by several factors, including:5
Different drug addictions have different heritability rates, which refers to the chances that you will develop a specific addiction. Studies have shown varied results for the heritability rate of cocaine, with one study citing a rate of .72, which means that 72% of cocaine addiction could be influenced by genetic factors.5 However, another clinical review quoted a heritability rate range of 42%–79%, with females landing on the lower end the spectrum.7 This could mean that your gender can also play a role in whether you will develop an addiction.
Although the heritability rate for cocaine may be higher than other diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, and high blood pressure, genes are not destiny.2 While it’s true that you inherit your genes, this doesn’t mean that addiction is inevitable. Many other factors influence drug abuse and addiction as well.
However, certain protective factors can reduce the risk of addiction, including:8,10
If you or someone you know is addicted to cocaine, there is help available. Quitting can be difficult, particularly with the presence of distressing withdrawal symptoms. Detox programs can mitigate many of the unwanted effects and help stabilize you.
If you become addicted to cocaine, you may experience withdrawal symptoms if you try to stop using. Some common cocaine withdrawal symptoms that can occur right after you stop using include:11,12
Some withdrawal symptoms that may persist for up to 10 weeks after you stop using include:12
Cocaine withdrawal symptoms can make it difficult for people to quit; many people continue using as a way of avoiding or relieving these symptoms, which only perpetuates the cycle of abuse.
Professional detox treatment is a highly recommended way to help you deal with cravings and managing withdrawal symptoms. Detox programs provide you with the medical monitoring and emotional and psychological support you need to help you safely and comfortably withdraw from cocaine.
Once you have successfully withdrawn from cocaine and are stabilized, your detox program will also set the stage for your ongoing recovery by providing you with a follow-up plan. An aftercare plan includes connecting you with cocaine addiction treatment facilities that may suit your individual needs. These facilities will teach you to replace negative drug-abusing behaviors with more positive and healthy options and help you take steps toward leading a more rewarding and drug-free life.