Cocaine causes ‘profound changes’ in the brain making addicts more likely to relapse. The ‘profound’ changes in the brain can happen with even a single dose doing damage, scientists have warned.
These changes weaken self-control and so, make it more likely a recovering addict will give into temptation.
University of East Anglia researcher Peter McCormick said: ‘We discovered that one single shot of cocaine can completely change the brain architecture and “set up” an addict for stress induced relapse.’
In experiments on rats, McCormick showed that cocaine drives a ‘wedge’ between two key brain proteins, interrupting the communication between them.
This break in communication makes it harder for the brain to deal with stress and increases the odds that a user will seek solace in cocaine.
The stress involved could be anything from psychological strain to seeing cocaine use on TV or in a film.
The find, detailed in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that a medicine that removes the ‘wedge’ and restores communication between the two proteins could help prevent those who are trying to kick the habit from relapsing.
Although the work was done on rats, Dr McCormick is confident that it is applicable to people.
It is thought that something similar happens when binge drinkers and heroin addicts are trying to quit.
Dr McCormick said, ‘Relapse among cocaine addicts is a major problem. We wanted to find out what causes it.
‘We identified a potential mechanism for protection against relapse.’
‘By restoring the broken interaction, we may be able to minimise stress-driven relapse.’
Cocaine use in Britain has trebled in two decades, with a new ‘phenomenon’ of rising drugs consumption among people in their forties and fifties. Cocaine abuse in the United States peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, but it remains an enormous problem today. The stimulant directly affects brain function, and long-term addiction leads to extensive physiological and psychological problems.
A new government report launched amid concern that cocaine is seen as safe found it is no longer ‘the preserve of wealthy bankers and celebrities’.
Its authors found the drug is now ‘firmly embedded in UK society’, and warned launching an anti-cocaine campaign could encourage more people to take it.
Last month, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs said the drug has spread throughout all areas of society since the mid-1990s.
It follows the emergence of a market in cheap, low-purity powdered cocaine that operates alongside a more expensive and far higher purity version of the drug.
A line of the cheaper version can now be bought for just £2 – less than the price of a coffee.
Once characterised as the preserve of wealthy bankers and celebrities, the research highlighted in this report shows a cheaper, low-purity version of the drug has permeated society far more widely
Cocaine use has traditionally been highest among people in their twenties and late teens but while usage among younger age groups has fluctuated in recent years, figures from the Office for National Statistics show the percentage of over-35s taking cocaine at least once in the past year increased from 0.8 per cent in 2001/2 to 1.5 per cent in 2013/14 – the equivalent of about 188,000 men and women.
Over the same period, use among adults described as ‘comfortably off’ rose from 1.5 per cent to 1.9 per cent.
Overall just over 810,000 men and women aged 16 to 59 in England and Wales used the drug at least once last year, 2.4 per cent of the population. It is the highest rate in Europe.
Use among older adults has been less common, particularly among 45-54 year olds.
In 2013-14, 1.8 per cent of people aged 34-44 took cocaine up from 1.3 per cent a decade earlier. Among 45 to 54-year-olds, the figure doubled from 0.3 per cent to 0.6 per cent.
But the report said: ‘It is notable that there have been statistically significant increases (1996 to 2013-14) across all age groups up to the age of 54 years; a phenomenon that has not been observed in respect of other drug types.’
It could be that more people are taking up cocaine later in life, but the data suggests it is the result of ‘continued use among an ageing user cohort’; suggesting age does not lead to people giving the drug up.
Professor Les Iversen, chair of the ACMD, an independent body which advises the Government, said: ‘Consumption of powdered cocaine in the United Kingdom has changed radically over the last two decades.
‘Once characterised as the preserve of wealthy bankers and celebrities, the research highlighted in this report shows a cheaper, low-purity version of the drug has permeated society far more widely.
‘Given the clear health risks associated with even infrequent cocaine use, and associated issues such as dependency and crime, this development has posed a huge challenge to health professionals, law enforcement, educators and academics.’
He added: ‘I believe the drug is firmly embedded in UK society.’

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