How does cocaine produce its effects?
Research has led to a clear understanding of how cocaine produces its pleasurable effects and why it is so addictive. Scientists have discovered regions within the brain that are stimulated by all types of reinforcing stimuli such as food, sex, and many drugs of abuse. One neural system that appears to be most affected by cocaine originates in a region of the midbrain called the ventral tegmental area (VTA). Nerve fibers originating in the VTA extend to a region known as the nucleus accumbens, one of the brain's key areas involved in reward. Animal studies show that rewards increase levels of the brain chemical (or neurotransmitter) dopamine, thereby increasing neural activity in the nucleus accumbens. In the normal communication process, dopamine is released by a neuron into the synapse (the small gap between two neurons), where it binds to specialized proteins (called dopamine receptors) on the neighboring neuron and sends a signal to that neuron. Dopamine is then removed from the synapse to be recycled for further use. Drugs of abuse can interfere with this normal communication process. For example, scientists have discovered that cocaine acts by blocking the removal of dopamine from the synapse, which results in an accumulation of dopamine and an amplified signal to the receiving neurons (see image "Cocaine in the brain"). This is what causes the initial euphoria commonly reported by cocaine abusers.
This series of reports simplifies the science of research findings for the educated lay public, legislators, educational groups, and practitioners. The series reports on research findings of national interest.