What does cocaine do to your brain?


It feels good, then it gets you hooked, then it can ruin your life. While a lot of people might be familiar with the effects and side effects of cocaine, few people know exactly what cocaine does to the brain once it’s in your system.

The science is in, and you don’t have to be a biologist to understand how cocaine works! With this blog, you too will be able to answer “What does cocaine do to your brain?”. 

Healthcare worker examining a brain scan in a clinic

Effects of Cocaine on the Brain

Cocaine has profound effects on the brain, primarily by interfering with the normal communication between neurons (nerve cells) in the brain. Some of its most prominent effects include but are not limited to: 

  • Cocaine increases the levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is related to pleasure and reward within the brain. This is achieved by blocking the reabsorption of dopamine, which leads to a build up of the neurotransmitter in the synapse (the gap between brain neurons). 
  • This flood of dopamine creates a sensation of pleasure and euphoria – part of what makes cocaine so addictive. 
  • Cocaine also stimulates the central nervous system, causing users to feel alert and awake, with lots of energy. This is done by blocking the reabsorption of neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine. 
  • That stimulant effect also causes a rapid increase in heart rate, along with constriction of the blood vessels, leading to reduced blood flow and increased blood pressure. 
  • Cocaine affects the prefrontal cortex, meaning that executive functions like judgement and decision making are impaired as well. 
  • Chronic use of cocaine can lead to addiction, characterised by compulsive drug-seeking behaviour despite negative consequences. Prolonged exposure to cocaine can also result in changes in the brain’s structure and function, impacting areas related to reward, motivation, and memory.
  • Cocaine use is associated with various psychiatric symptoms, including anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations. These effects contribute to the overall risk and negative impact on mental health.

What Part of the Brain Does Cocaine Affect?

Cocaine primarily affects the brain’s reward system by increasing the levels of hormones and neurotransmitters that produce a pleasurable, and even euphoric, response. You may have heard of this ‘reward system’ previously, but it is actually made up of many different specific areas of the brain. 

The ventral tegmental area (VTA) is located in the midbrain and produces dopamine, a neurotransmitter related to pleasure and reward. Dopamine is delivered from the VTA to the nucleus accumbens and other areas of the brain. 

The nucleus accumbens is located in the basal forebrain, and is often considered the primary pleasure centre. It processes rewards and the reinforcement of positive behaviours through dopamine. 

The amygdala is located in the medial temporal lobe, and helps with processing emotions, including what emotions we receive from certain triggers. This helps us to associate rewards with certain emotions, and memories. 

The hippocampus is located right next to the amygdala and is important for forming and consolidating memories. Here we are able to make connections between actions and rewards, like how the amygdala does between emotions and rewards. 

The prefrontal cortex describes the upper frontal part of your brain, and is one of the last areas of the brain to develop. It is associated with planning, impulse control, and self-control. It can help us to regulate our reward seeking behaviours and weigh up the pros and cons of certain actions. 

Finally, the hypothalamus is located deep in the brain, hidden between the two cerebral hemispheres. It regulates many different physiological processes, which include those that are related to rewards such as sex, eating, and drinking. 

Can Long Term Cocaine Use Damage Your Brain?

Earlier it was mentioned that chronic (long-term) cocaine use can have both psychological and physical impacts on the brain. Potential consequences of that long term use include, but are not limited to: 

  • Chronic cocaine use is associated with many cognitive deficits such as attention, concentration, memory, and decision making. These difficulties may continue even years after stopping use. 
  • Long-term cocaine use may alter the physical structure of the brain, particularly in areas like the prefrontal cortex  that are related to impulse control and decision making. 
  • Ongoing drug use is related to increased experiences of psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, and paranoia. This may either be because pre-existing conditions are being exacerbated or because new conditions are being caused. 
  • Prolonged use can disrupt the balance of many neurotransmitters, but particularly those mentioned above. This not only negatively influences the user’s mood, but if this balance is consistently disrupted the brain may struggle to be able to find a new balance once use has stopped. 
  • Consistent cocaine use increases the risk of the user developing an addiction. 
  • Cocaine use can induce neurotoxic effects that damage brain neurons and their connections through the flooding of neurotransmitters and oxidative stress. 

Do You Want to Stop Using Cocaine? Contact Us Today

Here at Clinic Les Alpes we know how difficult it can be to stop using cocaine, especially if you have been a long time user. Our first-class team takes a holistic approach to help you develop an individualised treatment plan that targets your exact needs and goals. 

Whether you start your journey with a cocaine detoxification or if you are sober and ready to dive head-first into recovery, we are here to help you. With an interdisciplinary team in house, and 24-7 medicalised care, you and your family can rest assured that you are receiving full support in the safety and comfort of our luxury amenities. 

Our philosophy revolves around ensuring that every patients unique needs are addressed in a holistic way. This means that we are here to not only treat your addiction, but also to support your mental health, physical health, and spiritual health. If you are interested in hearing more about what Clinic Les Alpes can offer you, please do not hesitate to reach out to our amazing team. 


Cocaine has an enormous and near instant effect on the brain. But this flood of euphoria comes at a price, and with cocaine impacting so many different areas of the brain it can be easy to understand how addiction develops and how hard it is to recover. 

So what does cocaine do to your brain? We know now that the answer is a lot darker, and more complicated than perhaps we realised. Be sure to use this knowledge to empower yourself to make health-promoting choices and live your best life. 

Clinically Reviewed By

Brittany Hunt

Brittany Hunt is an internationally experienced clinician, specialised in treating addictions and co-occurring disorders. Having worked in the public and private sector, she utilises holistic and evidence-based approaches designed to empower the patients in their recovery journeys. A graduate of The University of Auckland, she has a Bachelor of Health Sciences majoring in Mental Health and Addictions, a diploma in Psychology and Counselling and a Post-Graduate degree in Health Sciences, majoring in Addictions. She is a fully registered practitioner under the Drug and Alcohol Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (DAPAANZ).

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