Sigmund Freud, arguably the father of modern neuroscience, found himself fascinated by a chemical derived from the South American coca leaf, cocaine, during his late 20′s. In 1884, he wrote that he had “been reading about cocaine, the effective ingredient of coca leaves, which some Indian tribes chew in order to make themselves resistant to privation and fatigue” and, after some personal indulgence, he described the drug as a “magical substance” that “lifted me to the heights in a wonderful fashion”. Freud’s interest in cocaine led him to conduct several experiments over the years involving the substance and he eventually discovered a condition that he called “cocaine psychosis” in which a habitual user begins to experience hallucinations and intense paranoia. Freud never truly unraveled the precise cause of cocaine psychosis, yet he nonetheless found that a drug he once marveled at for its ability to bring a person to the heights of ecstasy was quick and efficient in its ability to destroy the human mind.
Cocaine and Brain Chemistry
Since Freud’s experiments in the 19th century, the precise biochemical reactions that occur in the brain during cocaine usage have been mapped. While its addictive nature and basic symptoms have been common knowledge for centuries, the true mechanics of how cocaine interacts with the human body are illuminating. It has been shown that the brains of animals function off of a reward-based understanding of the world and when something makes your brain feel good, it releases different chemicals to stimulate the mind, namely serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Cocaine is a specific type of drug called a serotonin–norepinephrine–dopamine reuptake inhibitor or, the shorter nomenclature, a triple reuptake inhibitor and that means that cocaine causes a release of these reward drugs, but stops the brain from removing any of the drug from the brain which creates a much higher concentration than normal, creating feelings of heightened sensory awareness and drastically improving one’s mood.
Just as coca leaves were chewed by tribes in South America to keep alert and energized, cocaine’s stimulating qualities helped it make its way into mainstream usage worldwide and especially in the United States. The US is currently the world’s largest consumer of cocaine according to the Central Intelligence Agency, and while putting an exact number on how much is imported is difficult due to its undocumented nature, 163 tons of cocaine were seized at United States borders in 2010 to give some perspective.
As many know from its fixture in popular culture, cocaine was popularized with 1970′s disco culture despite having long history in the United States including a brief stint as a legal medicinal remedy in the 19th century and its infamous inclusion in Coca-Cola. The 1970′s saw cocaine importation explode, as did violent crime, especially in Miami, Florida and the government sought to completely eviscerate the cocaine trade. Ironically, the CIA has been found to have been buying cocaine from various South American dictatorships during the 1970′s and 80′s to fund their rules, and are subsequently believed to have distributed that cocaine within the United States unwittingly. Despite this instance of cognitive dissonance, President Ronald Reagan declared war on cocaine and his darling wife Nancy coined the oft-repeated slogan of “Just say no!”
While an increase in the concentrations of these drugs does not necessarily doom one to addiction, BBC News recently reported that current studies show that cocaine changes the structure of the brain within hours of usage and that the brain quickly becomes chemically dependent on cocaine to function. Once the brain begins to adjust to the unnaturally high levels of serotonin and dopamine, any decrease creates pain and the brain screams for more of the drug. Intense cocaine dependence can cause the hallucinations and paranoia that Freud described, and modern psychologists liken it to intense schizophrenia. Many people suffering from withdrawal symptoms reported feelings of bugs crawling over their skin as well as inability to sleep and irritability. The speed at which the brain adapts to regular cocaine usage is extremely fast and it is this that makes cocaine addiction the United States’ most pressing problem behind heroin and methamphetamine abuse.
Numerous studies show that the recovery rate from cocaine addiction is relatively low in most types of rehabilitation programs, but the results from inpatient cocaine rehabilitation centers is encouraging. A study of over 200 recovering cocaine addicts found that 63% were abstinent for many years following inpatient treatment, which is a significantly higher rate of success than any current rehabilitation programs. The benefits of an inpatient program are evident as someone who is addicted to cocaine is physically dependent on the drug and generally cannot resist the urge to find more in any way possible.
Drug addiction is a mental affliction and it severely affects the ability of a person to make reasonable decisions. By removing an addict from the temptation altogether and placing them in a structured, controlled environment where they can get the medical attention they need, they can both stabilize their volatile brain chemistry and work with counselors to develop discipline and mental stability. Cocaine is one of the most destructive drugs in usage, mentally, physically, and emotionally as it rapidly deteriorates the body and mind as well as spurring anti-social behaviors that alienate one’s friends and family.