People who are dependent on cocaine are putting their grey matter at risk, say scientists.
A study from the University of Cambridge has found abusing the Class A drug accelerates the brain ageing process.
Previous studies have shown that cocaine can affect the reward pathways in the brain and put strain on the heart. However, this is the first to link grey matter loss with the addiction.
Research leader Dr Karen Ersche said: ‘As we age, we all lose grey matter. However, what we have seen is that chronic cocaine users lose grey matter at a significantly faster rate, which could be a sign of premature ageing.
‘Our findings therefore provide new insight into why the cognitive deficits typically seen in old age have frequently been observed in middle aged chronic users of cocaine.’
For the study, published in Molecular Psychiatry, researchers scanned the brains of 120 people with similar age, gender and verbal IQ.
Half of the individuals had a dependence on cocaine while the other 60 had no history of substance abuse disorders.
The researchers found that cocaine users lost about 3.08 ml brain volume per year, which is almost twice the rate of healthy volunteers (who only lost about 1.69 ml per year).
The accelerated age-related decline in brain volume was most prominent in the prefrontal and temporal cortex, important regions of the brain which are associated with attention, decision-making, and self-regulation as well as memory.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that cocaine is used by up to 21 million people around the world. More than one million people are believed to take the Class A drug in the UK – the highest rate in Europe.
Dr Ersche said: ‘Our findings clearly highlight the need for preventative strategies to address the risk of premature ageing associated with cocaine abuse.
‘Young people taking cocaine today need to be educated about the long-term risk of ageing prematurely.’
The concern of accelerated ageing is not limited to young people but also affects older adults who have been abusing drugs such as cocaine since early adulthood.
Dr Ersche added: ‘Our findings shed light on the largely neglected problem of the growing number of older drug users, whose needs are not so well catered for in drug treatment services. It is timely for heath care providers to understand and recognise the needs of older drug users in order to design and administer age-appropriate treatments.’