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Cocaine and the Teenage Brain

Teen boy struggling with cocaine addiction snorting a line of cocaine on a table  

Teen drug use is a problem, even today. Because of the way drugs and brain development interact, not only are there problems for the addicted teen while they are still a teenager, but substance use as a teen also increases their risk of substance abuse problems as an adult. One issue, in particular, that should be addressed is the problem of teens and cocaine use.

How Many Teens Use Cocaine?

In reality, how many teens use cocaine? According to the 2015 Monitoring the Future Survey, approximately 2.5% of 12th graders in the United States have used cocaine within the past year.

In fact, cocaine statistics indicate that approximately 29% of 12th graders surveyed in 2015 said that it would be “fairly easy” for them to buy cocaine if they wanted to. Believe it or not, these statistics are actually down from previous years, but by no means should the problem of teenage cocaine use be forgotten about.

How Does Cocaine Affect the Brain?

Teenagers doing cocaine remains a problem of concern because of the way it acts within the brain. But how does cocaine affect the brain? A long history of studies in both humans and animals suggests a dynamic role for the actions of cocaine within the central nervous system. Cocaine is perhaps most well-known for its role within the dopamine system of the brain.

Research suggests that dopamine release, dopamine transporter availability and dopamine receptor availability in the striatum were all lower in cocaine users. The striatum is a subcortical part of the forebrain and a critical component of the reward system. Because of this effect on brain dopamine systems, it can make an individual less sensitive to natural rewards and thus more likely to use cocaine to restore dopamine levels to normal.

Cocaine brain damage has even been shown. For example, in one magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study, decreased grey matter concentration was observed in insular, orbitofrontal, cingulate and temporal cortices of cocaine patients. These affected brain regions are particularly important for emotions and decision making, and, not surprisingly, these processes are impaired in individuals who do cocaine.

In fact, another more recent study replicated these findings and also found a correlation between these cortical abnormalities and aspects of impulsivity and compulsivity associated with cocaine dependence.

Teenage Brains More Vulnerable to Cocaine Addiction

Teen drug abuse is a problem because of the way teenage brain development works. Simply put, the brain isn’t done developing until a person is well into their 20’s, specifically the cortical regions. Therefore, the effects of the drug on the teenage brain are more pronounced, especially in the frontal cortex and its connections with the limbic system.

Long Term Effects of Cocaine Use in Teen Years

Teens abusing cocaine can suffer many long term effects of cocaine use during their teenage years. For example, the cardiovascular system is affected by cocaine use in adolescents. Cocaine use is also associated with risky behavior in young adults. Again, this comes back to the effects of drugs on the teenage brain. When areas of the frontal cortex are compromised by drug use, it impairs decision making and risk assessment in teens. When risky behaviors in young adults are more likely to occur, it opens the doors for many possible adverse side effects.

Are Cocaine Brain Alterations Reversible?

Perhaps the most alarming effect of cocaine is on the frontal cortex of the brain, because of its critical role in emotional processing, decision making, and risk assessment. Research has been trying to determine the extent to which cocaine damage is reversible.

To reverse the effects of cocaine, one needs to abstain from using the drug for a very long time. Imaging studies suggest that the prefrontal cortex is still recovering from cocaine use even 100 days after the last use of the drug. It may take months and months of discontinued use to see recovery of activity within the cortex. In short, complete and protracted abstinence is how to heal the brain after drug use.

What to Do If Your Teen Is Using Cocaine

What can you do if your teen is using cocaine? If you suspect that your teenager is using cocaine, teen drug treatment may be necessary. However, the first thing you should do is recognize the signs of drug use in teens.

Some warning signs include:

  • Obvious intoxication, dizziness or bizarre behavior
  • Changes in dress and grooming
  • Changes in their choice of friends
  • Changes in mood
  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Changes in weight
  • Loss of interest in usual activities or hobbies
  • School problems such as declining or failing grades, poor attendance and recent discipline problems

If your teenager is struggling with cocaine addiction, help is available. Drug rehab in Florida for teens is an option. Contact us, Next Generation Village, to learn about our personalized and confidential addiction treatment services geared towards teenagers.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.


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