New research by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and published in the journal Proceedings reveals that cocaine use causes neuronal (nerve) brain cells to cannibalise each other.
This is known as 'autophagy'.
Autophagy is usually a natural process when healthy cells digest older cells. This ensures old cells are disposed of without causing an otherwise harmful build-up of 'debris'.
New cells dissolve older cells using enzymes known as lysosomes. However, cocaine use causes autophagy to spiral out of control.
The report thus dispels the myth that 'only alcohol' kills brain cells.
The report's lead researcher, Dr Prasun Guha, said: "A cell is like a household that is constantly generating trash 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."
Another of the report’s authors, Dr Harraz, said: "There is no reason to believe that the effects of cocaine would be different in human neurons. The levels of cocaine we utilized are comparable with cocaine overdose in humans."
The researchers made this fascinating discovery by carrying out experiments on mice. Mice were given high doses of cocaine over a relatively long period of time. Following the conclusion of these experiments, the researchers carried out post-mortem examinations on the mice. The researchers compared the results with a 'control' group that was made up of mice who had not been exposed to cocaine.
The results of the experiment were clear: mice who had been exposed to high doses of cocaine exhibited high levels of autophagy-induced cell death in the brain.
Shockingly, the offspring of mice who had been exposed to cocaine use during pregnancy also exhibited high levels of autophagy-induced cell death even though these mice were not directly exposed to cocaine themselves.
The researchers also discovered that a drug known as CGP3466B arrested cocaine-induced autophagy. CGP3466B or 'Omigapil' is already used to treat Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in humans, so CGP3466B may soon be offered during cocaine addiction treatment. The drug would act as an antidote against the self-cannibalism of brain cells.